Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Big Fat Book November Update: The Game of Kings

Reporting progress on my Big Fat Book Project. What started out as a large project of listening to the audiobook has turned into a gigantic project: listening to the audiobook, two reads of the book, and a read of the detailed companion guide.

I've progressed swimmingly this month with my listening of The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett and the re-reading of the book. Correspondingly, I have been progressing along in the reading of the companion The Ultimate Guide to Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings by Laura Ramsey.

Last month, my exercising had been brought to a halt by a worsening old injury on my right knee. I am happy to report that said knee is doing a little better now with physical therapy. While I'm not back to exercising, the progress on the audio front is proceeding apace. I still have a ways to go before my December 31 deadline.

Having read, er, devoured, the paper copy last month, I thought that this month's listening would be an exercise in going through the motions. I already knew what was going to happen. Where was the newness, the discovery in that? Well, for one, I had discounted the fact that I was consuming the companion guide at the same time. Knowing all the previously-unknown material meant that I understood the complexity of the plot and Lymond's character far better.

Secondly, I had not taken into account performer Samuel Gillies's excellent reading. His interpretation of the characters' personalities added to the richness of the tapestry of Dunnett's prose.

And lastly, I had forgotten, in my paper copy reading, how very complex the story truly is. It was more work for me to keep the facts in my head during the listening since I didn't have the luxury of leafing back to re-read, nor did I like having to repeatedly stop/rewind/re-listen. So having read the story once and continuing to re-read it and to read the companion guide alongside helped to hold the facts at the forefront of my mind as I listened.

The companion guide is marvelous! What a treasure trove of myriad details. I had been impressed with Dunnett's library and knowledge before I read the companion guide, and now I'm even more impressed. How did she retain all those arcane snippets of information and then sift through her brain to find them just at the right moments?

Back to the guide, first up is a detailed list of all the characters, historical or fictional, with basic information on their titles, roles, and relationships. The guide's list of characters is far better than Dunnett's list of characters. I have always thought that the titles of the aristocracy were confusing, but this list of characters makes it even more so.

As an aside, when I looked at the list, I wondered when the "Master of" title became deprecated in history. It is used as a secondary title for either an heir or a younger son, as far as I can tell. However, when did it fall into disuse? By the time the Regency comes around, there's no "Master of" title, though courtesy titles were often granted to the heirs.

One of the best features of this companion guide is a detailed timeline of the events in the book. Another handy timeline is Lymond's backstory. If you read these two lists, you'll have the Cliff Notes version of the story. However, if you're reading Dunnett's book for the first time, I would not recommend that you read either of these two lists first. Treat yourself to the luxury of discovering the story as you read along.

As far as the main portion of the guide goes, nearly 350 pages, it is full of fascinating information. For example, I learned that the opening quotes of each of the chapters of Dunnett's book are either from The Game and Playe of the Chesse by William Caxton (1415–1492) or from The Book of the Customs of Men and the Duties of Nobles AKA The Buke of Ye Chess by Jacobus de Cessolis (1250–1322).

On the first page, a fragment of a sentence, ...the Sea-Catte reached Scotland from Campvere..., is explained as follows: "Campvere, a fortified seaport of the Netherlands on the islands of Walcheren, was once of considerable commercial importance as all goods sent from Scotland to the Netherlands were held there until sold."

A stray line such as, Tonight the Castle on its pinnacle was fully lit..., has an explanation of the origins of Edinburgh Castle, its history, where it's located on the map of Edinburgh, its relationship to Holyrood Abbey/House/Palace, and a map of a bird's-eye view of the English attack on Edinburgh and Holyrood in 1544.

A reference to the Battle of Solway Moss (November 24, 1542) cites the history of the battle and includes the roles the historical and fictional characters on the battlefield and off it.

Detailed biographical information about the central historical characters is included along with photographs. In general, almost every page is accompanied by a picture depicting the person, event, or thing being talked about.

As I said before, this guide is simply marvelous. If you really want to understand the plethora of off-the-cuff remarks and quotations in Dunnett's book, this guide is indispensable.

[For reference, here are my July, August, September, and October updates.]

Monday, November 24, 2014

How To Tell If You Are In a Regency Romance Novel

I was breathless with laughter as I read THIS! I had to share it with you all.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Picture Day Friday: A Medieval Multitasker

This is what it means to be a multitasker working on multiple screens medieval style. This is a painting of Venetian (then French) author Christine de Pizan (1364–1430), who was known as a proto-feminist of her day.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about her: "She served as a court writer for several dukes (Louis of Orleans, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, and John the Fearless of Burgundy) and the French royal court during the reign of Charles VI. She wrote both poetry and prose works such as biographies and books containing practical advice for women. She completed forty-one works during her 30-year career from 1399–1429."

Pretty, pretty impressive!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

2014 TBR Reading Challenge: Poetry of Robert Frost

As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my comments on Robert Frost edited by Gary D. Schmidt and illustrated by Henri Sorensen.

It has been decades since I last wrote critically about poetry. So this commentary is not meant to be read as a literary criticism of Frost's work or even as an authoritative reading of his poems. This is merely a case of "ooh, look how cool I find this and why" sort of thing.

Frost liked to introduce readers to his poetry with his poem The Pasture. In it, he invites a friend or a stranger walking by into his pasture just as he wants to invite the reader into his world of imagination.

   I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
   I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
   (And wait to watch the water clear, I may)
   I sha'n't be gone long.—You come too.

I was a fey young 'un wet behind the ears when I was first introduced to Frost's poems in school. I still remember my first poem and the marveling tone of our language teacher as she recited it from memory.

   The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
   But I have promises to keep,
   And miles to go before I sleep,
   And miles to go before I sleep.

Who can forget the majesty of the imagery behind Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening? One recitation, and I was in love. This poem, unfortunately, is not part of this collection.

However, my other favorite, The Road Not Taken, is included here. The thing that always strikes me about Frost is the sparseness of his choice of words. Some poets are flowery and use similes and metaphors to illustrate their points; Frost, on the other hand, goes for simplicity in thought and word and comes away with something profound.

   I shall be telling this with a sigh
   Somewhere ages and ages hence:
   Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
   I took the one less traveled by,
   And that has made all the difference.

What a mundane little thing like arriving at a fork in the path in the woods one autumn evening and choosing to go down one and not the other to spark off a serious thought about life's choices and not always choosing the easiest or known path, but choosing the right path for that moment in time.

In this folio collection, the poems are divided by seasons. The other autumn poem I liked was In Hardwood Groves, wherein he talks about how things have to fall down before they can rise up again. In going down, they give succor to the flowers that are going to rise up from beneath. And when new leaves rise up on the trees, they provide shade to the dancing flowers beneath.

Many of Frost's poems are about going out for walks and writing about what he sees and what he feels about what he sees. In Good Hours, he talks about his one winter evening walk when he walked past cottages in the village full of life being lived behind well-lit windows.

   I had the sound of a violin;
   I had a glimpse through curtain laces
   Of youthful forms and youthful faces.

As I read this, I also wondered whether Frost was lonely. Whether on that cold winter evening, he felt like an outsider in the dark, while in the glow of light and fire, families lived and rejoiced.

To Frost, walking was his chief source of inspiration. So he ends the springtime poem To The Thawing Wind by urging the strong southwester wind to scatter his written work to propel him outside to seek new inspiration. But before that end, he writes with surpassing beauty of what he'd like the storm to do in banishing winter.

   Come with rain, O loud Southwester!
   Give the buried flower a dream;
   Make the settled snowbank steam;
   Find the brown beneath the white;
   But whate're you do tonight,
   Bathe my window, make it flow,
   Melt it as the ice will go;

Who would have the imagination to write a poem about a telegraph pole? I mean, really. That's about as blah as you can think of. And yet, Frost turns it into a thing to marvel at. He calls it a resurrected tree that had been cut down but stood stalwart again, a barkless specter. He talks about how this tree carries these wires on its shoulders, wires that lead off to faraway places and carries news of exotic events. This is An Encounter.

   "You here?" I said. "Where aren't you nowadays?
   And what's the news you carry—if you know?
   And tell me where you're off for—Montreal?
   Me? I'm not off for anywhere at all.
   Sometimes I wander out of beaten ways
   Half looking for the orchid Calypso."

Friday, November 14, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Venice

Friday, November 7, 2014

Joanna Bourne Giveaway Winner

Thank you everyone for reading, participating, and commenting. The winner of the Joanna Bourne giveaway of ROGUE SPY is....

Daniella Santos !!!

Congratulations, Daniella! Please email your address to me: keira at keirasoleore dot org. You have until end-of-day Thursday, November 13, 2014 to get back to me, otherwise I will give it away to someone else.

Picture Day Friday: Gold of Nubia

Nubia was a very wealthy region of ancient Africa. Here's some exquisite work done in pure gold dated to almost 1000 BCE to 1st century BCE.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Joanna Bourne's Writing + Giveaway

Whenever I'm about to start a new Joanna Bourne book, or even an oft-read book, I get this fillip of excitement. I know I'm in for a great reading experience.

I've been a fan of Bourne since her first book, The Spymaster's Lady. The romance book world was abuzz when that book was released. People felt the way I did—we were watching the launch of a legend in romance. Was it the story? The action? The plotting and pacing? The characters? The dialogue? Well, it was everything, and it dazzled us.

What I noticed first and last and always was the writing. When you read a Bourne, you realize how well-crafted her prose is. It's not just beauty and elegance of phrasing but it is the carefully chosen nuance and shades of a nuance that'll portray that particular detail layered with that particular emotion just at that perfect moment in time.

For example, look at how she reveals Pax's character in Rogue Spy:

The woman he'd been watching tossed another wide circle of crumbs and her cloak flowed like water falling. Sparrows hopped and scuttled madly left or right around her feet. He's do that lone, self-contained figure in chalks, the sweet curve of her cloak laid in burnt sienna over indigo. He'd thumb in one soft smudge of pale amber under her hood, where the plane of her cheek showed.

Bourne shows here that not only is Pax a very observant spy, but he's an artist of some skill who prefers to work in chalk. He looks at the world like it's a painting he can emulate.

What does it take to be perceived as a coachman? See in The Spymaster's Lady:

Across the courtyard, Will Doyle was playing coachman, pacing the off-side horse, a big piebald mare, in a wide circle around the inn yard, watching its gait.

Here's another example, where in one fell swoop, she reveals the character of Justine, Séverine, Maggie, and Doyle and the political climate of the story in The Black Hawk:

Her sister was well cared for. She was held within that mansion as in careful cupped hands. She was given the pretty riding habit and sleek, playful pony. Given the tutor — he had been a great scholar in France before he was broken and tossed aside by the Revolution. That was another soul Marguerite gave refuge to. Alert, dangerous veterans of the war, some missing an eye or an arm, patrolled the perimeter. Three monster dogs coursed the grounds after dark. If there were any peace and safety in the world, William Doyle folded it around his wife and the children in his house.

I find that I have to be very alert when I'm reading in order to not miss gem after such gem. And they are on every page to be discovered on the first read-through or the tenth.

Right at the very beginning of her books, Bourne launches the reader into a chaotic and agonizing scene for one of her protagonists. The stories take off with a bang and the action never lets up. Take a look at the beginnings of three of her books:

She was willing to die, of course, but she has not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.The Spymaster's Lady

The past caught up to her in the rain, in Braddy Square, six hundred yards from Meeks Street.The Black Hawk

The end of her own particular world arrived early on a Tuesday morning, wrapped in brown paper and twine, sealed with a blog of red wax.Rogue Spy

You immediately know something about the three heroines and the dire situations they face. They're at the end of their rope, so the only way to move forward is for them to be extremely resourceful. And the reader is thus launched into the story, dying to find out.

In the midst of all the angst of on-stage and off-stage physical and emotional action, Bourne's stories are romances, not just thrillers with love scenes. These days, it is rare to find this: love scenes that are organic—that are there because it's a natural progression in the characters' growth arc for them to be intimate, that are never of the "X number of scenes with Y positions" variety sprinkled with a liberal hand in the narrative at the expense of actual story. From The Spymaster's Lady: Lovemaking is of the mind, not a grappling of anatomies.

What was highly intriguing to me about The Spymaster's Lady and Rogue Spy is how those two storylines fit jigsaw puzzle-like with each other. Even as the first was part-way through, the latter was taking off, and the two heroes, Grey and Pax crossed each other and interacted with each other in the other's storylines. Bourne does this over and over again with her characters and other books. How in the world does she keep those tiny details straight in her head to avoid making mistakes within the books and across the books? Quite impossible to maintain such a detailed book bible.

Many times in series, characters who're going to be heroes or heroines of their stories show up in the first book as minor characters with not much happening to them. Not so with Bourne's stories. Her sequel heroes have their stories start from the very first book even if they're minor characters. So while each book is a standalone, reading the books in order makes for a far better reading experience, because it allows you to weave a rich tapestry of Bourne's world, and in her world, every tiny detail counts.

Note that the order of publication is not the order of the series, since Bourne has written books out of chronological order in her series.

I really like how she's grounds her characters and the storylines with a great concept of home for these rootless spies. Number 7 Meeks Street is their headquarters. This is where they come to confess their darkest moments and find succor. Within its walls, these assassins find peace to examine their lives and choose new directions. Galba is their taskmaster, secretive and ruthless, and yet he exerts a benevolent influence over the motley societal misfits.

From The Spymaster's Lady:

"One more thing..." Galba had become grave. He moved the inkwell upon his desk a finger's breadth to the left and stared at it, his lips compressed and twisted at the corner, as if the inkwell had blighted many hopes. "We heard of your mother's death, but not how it happened. Will you tell me?"

Her point-of-view worldview is masterful. Her characters don't slip out of, well, character. They don't see things they can't, they don't infer things that only others would know, and so on. When you're in one character's head, you're enmeshed in that character's personality, knowledge, experience, and vision.

I could go on and on about what I find fascinating about the writing and the world of Joanna Bourne's stories.

[A complete aside: May I gush on about how very much I like the cover of Rogue Spy? There's human interest, there's drama and atmosphere, there's a historical feel, there's a romance feel, it's classy and understated—just the perfect cover.]


I'm giving away one print copy of Rogue Spy to a commenter. This offer is good for U.S. and Canadian readers only. Deadline for commenting is Thursday, November 6, 2014 11:59pm Pacific Time.

Please tell me: Have you read any of Joanna Bourne's books? If so, which one is your favorite and why? If none of her books worked for you, why not?


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Writing Has Mental and Physical Health Benefits

Haven't all those of us who write journals, blogs, articles, reviews, stories, books, what-have-you always known that writing is pleasurable and the feeling of satisfaction lasts beyond the immediate? Now, it's been found that the act of writing has long term health benefits, mental and physical.

If you were involved in a traumatic or stressful life event or illness, writing about it allows you to heal faster and less painfully. Asthma sufferers have fewer attacks, AIDS patients have higher T-cell counts, physical wounds heal faster, people sleep better, immune systems strengthen, and so on.

"James W. Pennebaker believes this act of expressive writing allows people to take a step back and evaluate their lives. Instead of obsessing unhealthily over an event, they can focus on moving forward. By doing so, stress levels go down and health correspondingly goes up."

Every one can do it, according to Pennybaker. You don't have to be a serious novelist or a book critic. Journal. Write a short paragraph every day.

When I was making my new year's goals in December 2013, I decided to start a 365 Days of Positivity Journal. I started on January 1 and so far I have had an unbroken record. I maintain an online journal, and every day so far, I have posted a short paragraph (and sometimes, many long paragraphs) on something good that happened that day. It hasn't always been something profound, and it hasn't always been something that affected me directly, other than the joy I received from watching something wonderful happen to someone I'm really close to. But it has always been something positive.

As I did it week after week, I started to realize that I was looking for things to be delighted in during my days. I'd make mental notes to type it up when something good happened. It put me in the moment, appreciating what was happening to me.

Overall, I have found that it has made me resilient, in that, when things aren't so hot, I'm not down in the dumps for long. Well, because even on the worst days, something good happens every day.

When you're willing to appreciate even the mundane, it takes the pressure off to BE a certain way. You write about it as it happens and the way it happens. There's no prize for it to be an earth-shattering moment. I have half a dozen entries that say that today was a day when nothing bad happened. That routine day was a good day in my book. I have appreciated sunsets, my baby's belly laughs, a good book, a delicious meal cooked by someone else, work successes, bears visiting my backyard (yes, really! my backyard backs into a protected forest, so we've had bears, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, deer, raccoons, and other small critters visiting regularly—I feel like I'm the one in the zoo and they're coming to look at me), and so on.

Something good, no matter how miniscule, or sometimes the lack of something bad, happens every single day. And I'm grateful for it.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Musical Instruments of Africa

Here is a small smattering of instruments from among a vast array of music-making devices of Africa.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Big Fat Book October Update: The Game of Kings

Reporting progress on my Big Fat Book Project. I have now finished 12 of 25 hours of The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. This means I should've read around 250 out of 554 pages in the paper copy.

BUT Dear Reader, I cheated. The book got too exciting for me. I raced ahead and devoured the paper copy. Or rather, the story devoured me.

My exercising was hijacked by an old injury on my right knee flaring up and worsening. As a result, the audio part of the BFB Project went kaput. As I have mentioned before, without a mindless activity to occupy my body, my mind doesn't merely wander, it roams far and wide. Sitting in a chair listening is not an activity for me. So while I have now thoroughly enjoyed, finished, and digested the paper copy, I have given myself till December 31 to finish the audiobook. I sincerely hope I can achieve that goal comfortably, and I'm not up late in the week between Christmas and New Year's swotting.

As I read ahead, I—guiltily—abandoned reading with the dictionary and Google at my elbow. Even assiduous googling didn't always yield satisfactory results. In the comments of my September post, reader simhedges had recommended The Ultimate Guide to Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings by Laura Ramsey as the perfect companion guide to the book. I had planned then on reading it as a side-by-side-third-go-through of the main text. That book has been bought, but remains largely unread.

I gave up on understanding every word and every phrase and every nuance. There were far too many of those pesky references to historical events, movements, and people; literary allusions; and foreign languages. I was too engrossed in the story to take the time to slow down and really understand every word. I hope to read the companion book next month as I continue with the audiobook.

I really wonder what Dunnett's personal library looks like for her to be able to sprinkle all these into her narrative.

I do understand that some books are like a thin-crust pizza: everything is visible on the surface. And yet others are like onions, you peel and peel and peel and uncover something more you hadn't noticed before. Discovery is the joy of re-reading books such as these. While this is certainly the case with Dunnett's book, it did cross my mind a time or two that it was striving to be so more than being organically so. A minor quibble in an overwhelmingly fabulous read on many levels.

For a tome with a huge cast of characters and movement of said people hither and yon and involved in this or that, the book is paced perfectly. It's neither so fast as to be overwhelming and discombobulating, neither does it drag. That was my primary fear of taking on a big book: Would I have to slog through the book page by torturous page just to say, "I did it"? I did not want this to be my Crime and Punishment.

Fortunately, that hasn't been the case, in fact, far from it. It was engrossing reading whether or not Lymond was in the scene. The Lymond scenes were admittedly slightly anxious reading/listening ones for me: I was always anticipating his perpetrating some other outrage on some other hapless head.

At the beginning of the month, I remember thinking: I am eagerly awaiting the scene where something or someone is going to give Lymond his comeuppance. Oh, certainly not bring him to his knees—that would be too common—but just put a check in his arrogant, insouciant stride and give him a moment of mental discomfort.

Let me tell you that there was karma even in Lymond's world!

Last month, I had written: "This has got to be one heck of a character arc for Lymond. My imagination fails me in picturing Lymond's transformation from anti-hero to hero."

Well, let me also tell you, Dunnett delivers! By God, she does.

[For reference, here are my July, August, and September updates.]

Friday, October 24, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Himalayan Mountain Peak

Magnificent, isn't it? Chomo Lonzo Peak of the Kangshung Glacier in the Himalayas.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tolkein's Poem: Winter Comes to Nargothrond

Winter Comes to Nargothrond is a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien as scribed by Thascales. I don't have a blog posted this week yet but wanted to share this poem with you that I love.

The summer slowly       in the sad forest
waned and faded.       In the west arose
winds that wandered       over warring seas.
Leaves were loosened       from labouring boughs:
fallow-gold they fell,       and the feet buried
of trees standing       tall and naked,
rustling restlessly       down roofless aisles,
shifting and drifting.
           The shining vessel
of the sailing moon       with slender mast,
with shrouds shapen       of shimmering flame,
uprose ruddy       on the rim of Evening
by the misty wharves       on the margin of the world.
With winding horns       winter hunted
in the weeping woods,       wild and ruthless;
sleet came slashing,       and slanting hail
from glowering heaven       grey and sunless,
whistling whiplash       whirled by tempest.
The floods were freed       and fallow waters
sweeping seaward,       swollen, angry,
filled with flotsam,       foaming, turbid,
passed in tumult.       The tempest died.
Frost descended       from far mountains
steel-cold and still.       Stony-glinting
ice hung evening       was opened wide,
a dome of crystal       over deep silence,
over windless wastes       and woods standing
as frozen phantoms       under flickering stars.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Bali, Indonesia

Bali is famous for its beaches and its temples. Here's a picture of ancient ruins of a temple that is still in use as a holy site.

][Image copyrighted by www.capreform.eu.]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

2014 TBR Reading Challenge: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan

As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my comments on The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan.

I freely admit: I would not have read this book unless at the insistent urging of my daughter. I do not read middle-grade books. However, she persistently, and creatively, advocated the merits of the book, and I was convinced to give it a go. I warned her that if I found it boring, I would drop it. She accepted that with grace. But from the get go, I was hooked. The story and characters were engaging and the plot moved at a cracking pace.

The Titan's Curse is book three of the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. Percy Jackson is a half-blood, i.e., the son of the Greek sea god Poseidon and a mortal woman from NYC. During the school year, he resides with his mother, but during the summers, he lives at Camp Half Blood, which is a camp for the sons and daughters of gods and goddesses as well as satyrs (half man, half goat), centaurs (half man, half horse), pegasi (flying horses), nereids (sea nymphs), dryads (tree nymphs), hippocampi (fish ponies), and other such magical beings.

This series leads into the Greek wars between the ancient Titan lords and the later Olympian gods. The cruel Titan Kronos had been destroyed before the story begins and his pieces had been cast into Tartarus, the underworld. However, evil monsters were trying to knit him together so that he could rise again. All the half-bloods' quests in this series play a role in attempting to prevent this from taking place.

In this story, Chiron, the centaur, and Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, rule over Camp Half Blood. Annabeth (Athena's daughter), Thalia (Zeus's daughter), Grover (the satyr), Zoë Nightshade (lieutenant of Artemis's hunters), and Bianca and Nico di Angelo are the cast of heroes supporting Percy in his quest to save the goddess Artemis (and Annabeth who gets captured during the quest). Zoë's, Bianca's, and Nico's parents play a part in the surprising twists and turns of the story.

Grover sends Percy, Thalia, and Annabeth a message about locating two very powerful half-bloods with unknown parentage. While they go off to rescue Bianca and Nico, they meet up with a spike-throwing manticore monster and Annabeth gets captured. The other heroes are rescued from the monster by Artemis and her immortal hunters, including Zoë. Artemis accepts Bianca into her band of hunters and grants her eternal youth. There's a fun and hair-raising ride for the heroes back to the camp with the bad haiku-spouting (heh!) Apollo in his red-hot Maserati sun-chariot.

In the meantime, Artemis heads off on her own to capture one of the most terrible monsters who's stirring back to life—monsters don't die, they simply lie dormant when defeated in battle till it is time to rise again. Unfortunately, Artemis gets captured, hence the heroes are back on a quest to rescue Artemis and Annabeth. Of course, the previous half-blood turned traitor, Luke, is involved in this up to his nasty ears.

Beyond this, I cannot say, because in the telling, I'd be revealing spoilers that'll destroy the whole story. Surprises are revealed at every plot turn, and it is impossible to narrate the rest of the story without knowing the spoiler.

I loved the story. I loved the writing: fresh, fast, complex (plotting details and characterization), age-appropriate and yet great reading for adults, too.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

Potala Palace, in the capital city of Lhasa, Tibet, is the home of the Dalai Lamas of Tibetan Buddhism. Here are views of the palace in different seasons.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Perspective on the Masters of Fine Arts Programs

I was at the library picking up an interlibrary loan book that was on hold for me, when naturally, I couldn't resist perusing the new books shelf. Lo and behold, I came across a book that compares the literary cultures of the Masters of Fine Arts university degree and the literary fiction trade publishing houses of Manhattan, New York City. I had to pick it up and bring it home: MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach.

And as serendipity has its way, when I arrived home, I ran across an article in the New York Times asking: Can Writing Be Taught? The authors of the article were Zoë Heller, whose book Notes on a Scandal was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Rivka Galchen, a recipient of a William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction.

My comments here are restricted to the NYT article, the introduction to the book, and some of the essays in the book: "MFA vs NYC" by Chad Harbach, "A Mini-Manifesto" by George Saunders, "The Fictional Future" by David Foster Wallace, "Money (2014)" by Keith Gessen, "People Wear Khakis" by Lorin Stein with Astri von Arbin Ahlander, "How To Be Popular" by Melissa Flashman, "The Disappointment Business" by Jim Rutman, and "Basket Weaving 101" by Maria Adelmann.

The "MFA" part of the title of the book refers to the rapid flourishing of creative writing programs offered by universities, leading to lucrative academic careers for writers and other graduates of the MFA program that rival, and far often exceed, publishing earnings. The "NYC" part of the title refers to Manhattan's trade publishing industry.

I talk here about the MFA program and its pros and cons as presented by the essays.

As is quickly established, the editor Chad Harbach's antipathy towards academe is illustrated with choice words, such as: A system with problematic elements "in their very American way of charging large numbers of students large sums to pursue a dream achieved by a few, economically." This is echoed in the NYT article: "An M.F.A. is not a passport to becoming a great novelist, or even a published one," says Zoë Heller. "The former depends on something numinous called talent; the latter has to do with the exigencies of the marketplace."

Harbach claims that MFA programs are not rigorous; in fact, they're easy and laissez-faire. This is echoed in Mary Adelmann's description of her experience with the program. While she worked and reworked many drafts of her stories, they were written with workshopping them with her peers in sight, not publishing or the reading public at large and not even art for arts' sake. And the sheer quantity of output for a two-year program was low.

People debate whether creative writing can be taught. Both Heller and Galchen believe that there are certain rules and techniques to writing in the English language that can certainly be taught. But I ask the question: Can creativity be taught? Should it be taught? To some critics, the workshop method of MFA learning is the kiss of death to creativity. The grading of assignments and workshop method of peer-critique-based writing lends itself to a certain converging-to-a-mean type of storywriting. To others, the MFA reading and writing assignments are a way to learn and absorb from the greats who have come before. Yet, does this teach creativity?

"The question of why it is, when thinking about writing, we are disproportionately detained by the question of teachability," asks Rivka Galchen. "Is it just that it's somehow flattering to feel one's endeavor is more gift than labor, and are writers more in need of such flattery than others?"

According to David Foster Wallace, the MFA program attracts certain types of students: ones who "(1) Determine what the instructor wants; and (2) Supply it forthwith." Those students who choose to deviate from the norm are either expelled or face opprobrium from the faculty. However, those who "the minute fanny touches chair, make the instructors' dicta their own" are encouraged with financial inducements and teacher approval. "They begin producing solid, quiet work, most of which lands neatly in Dreary Camp #3, nice cautious, boring Workshop Stories, stories as tough to find technical fault with as they are to remember after putting them down."

George Saunders, an MFA professor, writes a defensive piece in support of MFA programs. He claims that the homogenization that happens in an MFA program is not different from societal and cultural homogenization that happens daily. This is disingenuous at best. The forces at play in society are far more varied and far more numerous. The microcosm that is the MFA has few variables at play and very few people in charge. This top-down approach will, by definition, have a flattening effect on the peaks of creativity of a sizeable class of students.

This is borne out by Keith Gessen's essay on how he interacts with his students. Before I get to that, I found his lack of teaching knowledge, his indifference to learning basic teaching techniques, and the lackadaisical way he approached his preparation for class to be playing into the criticism of the MFA programs. In his interaction with students, one predominant theme was his disappointment with the students if their answers to his questions didn't match his expectations. If what they wrote was not to his taste, he was unable to see the merit in them. "I had read their first exercises and they were not for me. They were obscure; rather than less self-involved than traditional first-person writing, they were more self-involved. I should have said [to them]: 'You are not ready to do this sort of work.'"

(An aside: I found this statement by Saunders troublesome in its defiance: "If someone wants to go to a CW program, then goes [sic] to a CW program and [if] it sucks, she probably won't die from it.")

So why are MFA programs so popular? Harbach believes it is a way for students to feel that they're doing some positive towards their writing career and that it is an easy degree. Writer-teachers, themselves graduates of MFA programs, are drawn towards teaching, because it provides a lucrative steady income in salary, guest lectureship, paid talks, etc., in addition, tenure provides job security, all of which publishing books through NYC cannot guarantee. So the MFA program is a circular system: generating writers who in turn return to teach more writers.

What the writers in the programs are learning are to write short stories. Short stories are workshopable, if you will; novels aren't. Many of the top-notch stories go on to be published in university literary magazines and periodicals; some may be published in literary magazines of NYC, however, that number is small. Stories in university publications are assigned for reading in that university's MFA program as well as in a reciprocal arrangement with other MFA programs. As a result, rising popularity of certain short stories can lead to their canonization, which is a proud accolade to have.

So despite the cons, the pros seem to outweigh the balance in favor of the flourishing of MFA programs.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Idealized Children's Library

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Big Fat Book September Update

I do have progress to report on my Big Fat Book Project this month as opposed to last month. I have now finished 9 of 21 CDs of The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett. This means I've crossed 200 pages in the paper copy. This is my story of how I came to do a Big Fat Book Project.

For the record, I'm listening to the audiobook and also reading the paper copy, er, not simultaneously.

I was hooked to the story from the very third track of the first CD. The first track was an introduction by Dunnett, while the second was a daunting list of characters that went on and on, and I promptly forgot the one when he stated who the next was. This is where having a paper copy of the book was immensely helpful. Whenever I ran into "now who the heck is this?," I could quickly leaf to the relevant pages and glance over the list.

Another advantage of the paper copy was the ability to consult the map at the front of the book whenever a place name cropped up. Now how could he see the smoke plumes of Midculture from the battlements of Boghall? Ah, yes, of course.

I had assumed that my attention would wander as I listened to the audio—and it did, as in I wasn't one hundred percent focused at all times—but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I had retained of the story. Every few days, I caught up on my listening in my paper copy. I had retained not just the gist of the plot but also the nuances of some of the characterizations.

The reader, or rather performer, Samuel Gillies gets the credit for retaining my interest and for the depth of my retention. He has a good speaking voice with clear diction and no verbal conversational tics. He does male characters really well with enough variation in tone, inflection, and pronunciation to distinguish between them. His medieval English accent was superb as was his Scottish accent, but luckily, he did them sparingly. At first, I was afraid that since there are a plethora of Scottish characters, Gillies would read the entire book that way, but thankfully, he didn't. My quibble was with his French accent, which was execrable. I'm not qualified to comment on his German, Spanish, Italian, or Latin accents, or other languages I did not recognize.

One downside to this book (audio and paper) is that there're not an insignificant number of small sections in languages other than the Queen's English. And there are no translations whatsoever. Other than the French, I understood nothing. It irked me to have to skip over the passages, because, you know, like, I might be missing something important there.

What is lost in the audio listening are references to things I don't know about. For example, I didn't know that the word Erasmian referred to the pre-Protestant and Humanist ideas propounded by Catholic priest Erasmus of Rotterdam in the 16th century. Another example was the word mouldiewarps, which is an archaic word for a mole. I heard these and many others like these as foreign words, which were therefore incomprehensible. However, when they came up in the paper copy, I looked them up, and now I know, and my reading of those scenes is richer for that knowledge. Yes, I admit that it was a trifle wearing to sit with a dictionary at my elbow.

The scenes that feature Lymond are the ones with a plethora of foreign phrases, quotations, and uncommon words and references. Those also happen to be integral to the story so the urge to understand is urgent.

A con of choosing to do the audio and the paper is that I'm proceeding at a much slower pace than had I done one or the other. I have to play catch-up sometimes in one medium and so halt the progress in the other. I wouldn't say I'm half as slow, but definitely significantly slower.

I owe Kaetrin another word of thanks for her suggestion to exercise while listening. My attention wandered far less than it otherwise would have if I had not been physically doing something mindless while listening to the reading. I also found, thankfully, that when something interesting was going on, I was exercising longer. Win!

For the story itself, you have to start with its central scapegrace of a character. Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter, is articulate, literate, treasonous, treacherous, with a viper's tongue and elastic morals, utterly self-involved, full of ennui and grace, poetically insouciant, beautiful, and a murdering thief.

The gist of the book is that Scotland is still free in 1547, but has already suffered a crashing defeat at the hands of the English. The English want to marry their boy King Edward VI to Scotland's toddler Mary, Queen of Scots, thereby finally uniting both countries under the English crown. So far, they've been unsuccessful in carrying her off. So war brews and rumbles along the Scottish Borders. Scotland's future rests in the hands of the anti-hero Lymond. (This has got to be one heck of a character arc for Lymond. My imagination fails me in picturing Lymond's transformation from anti-hero to hero. So I remain agog to see how Dunnett is going to pull it off.)

Friday, September 26, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Ancient Egyptian House in Cornwall, England

Would you like to stay in an ancient, ornate Egyptian house in the Penzance region of Cornwall, England? If so, you can book one of three apartments through Landmark Trust. (Don't look for historical accuracy; it's high on fun, less so on history.)

[Click to see a bigger, better picture.]