Character dilemma



So, I’ve been working on this new manuscript, involving a princess, whom I’ll call C in this and future posts. I’m about 60% done with the first draft, and it suddenly hit me: should I make C a commoner?

I’m afraid I’ve passed the point of no return with C and will have to keep going, leaving it up to a future agent or publisher to suggest I rethink using royalty (to which I’ll probably respond, like Bartleby, “I would prefer not to”).

If the protagonist is strong, realistic, fun, “easy to relate to”, then OK, no problem, green light. And I think I’m there. Although: one of my readers keeps telling me C’s a spoiled brat, which I don’t see and which also might not be a problem anyway, but the comment still rankles. There must be a thin line between feisty/independent and indulged/troublesome.



This is where advice I always gave my writing students is useful: Don’t argue with the reader. Just use the reader’s comments to understand the effects your words are having and decide if those match your intentions.

So, when I figure out what my intentions are, I’ll be able to use my reader’s comments.

Now I have to get back to my MS, where C is headed into some kind of trouble I haven’t figured out yet.

Posted in Character, writing | 6 Comments

Mise en place

Could I get one of these, designed for writers?

Could I get one of these, designed for novelists? (from

My sister’s a chef, so I know mise en place. I don’t always follow it when I cook, but I know what it looks like: Bowls and cups filled with individual ingredients neatly lined up for easy mixing into whatever concoction I’m preparing. Spoons, knives and other necessary utensils clean, honed, ready for service. Crockery oiled and floured, oven preheated, recipe double-checked, radio playing: all designed to guarantee smooth motion, quick completion, and no errors (such as forgetting the egg, or the salt, in the bread I like to make — it’s edible, but not delicious).

from StoatsAndStoats on Tumblr

from StoatsAndStoats on Tumblr

I wish I could use mise en place with my writing. NaNoWriMo is approaching (November 1st), and I’m trying to line up in my head the little idea containers holding a range of colors, textures, flavors, and that secret ingredient that provides the WOW factor.

But, of course, writing doesn’t work like that. So the best I can do is open my computer and sit myself down. The only ingredients necessary are time and will power. Oh, yeah, and ideas.

This year’s NaNo project involves a dragon gymkhana and some troublesome stoats.

By the by, book reviews are going temporarily on hold, as I focus on prepping for NaNo. Expect writing updates in the meantime.

Posted in NaNoWriMo, writing | 2 Comments

Cartographer’s Prize

200px-SelectedWorksOfTSSpivetThe Selected Works of T. S. Spivet (2009), Reif Larsen.

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is 12, the only surviving son of Dr. Clair and Father, brother to Gracie, and a prodigy who maps not just his geographic world (his bedroom, the route to various local towns, the flight pattern of one bat in the acres south of his house), but everything else as well. Here’s a short list from the first few chapters: “Patterns of Cross-Talk Before and After”, “Selected Stages of Male Pattern Baldness”, “The Distance Between Here and There”, “Gracie Shucking Sweet Corn #6″, “Map of August 22-23″.

spivet_illustration-266x186T. S. compulsively charted every aspect of his world even before the accident that killed his brother, Layton (the line marking the Before and After of some of his maps), and he’d sold illustrations to professional science publications. Each member of his family is coping (or not) with the loss, and T. S. chooses to deal with it by working Layton’s name into all drawings completed after that dreadful day.

Then, catapulting T.S. into a cross-country hobo’s journey, the Smithsonian telephones — believing him to be an adult, they’ve awarded him a prestigious prize that requires his presence in Washington, D.C. Much of the book covers his journey, after hopping a freight train, from Montana to the nation’s capitol. The journey begins funny, blessed with ease, and marred only by minor hunger pangs, but changes at Chicago. T. S. has left the friendly West (think laconic cowboys and loyal dogs) and entered the East’s harsh world (greedy museum managers and crazed prophets). I felt the novel’s tone shift seismically, as though crossing the Mississippi had brought T. S. out of The Good Old Days and into the world of Shucksters and Crazies.

Having grown up with H. C. Holling’s thickly annotated works, I wasn’t bothered, as some other reviewers have been, by the detours to the marginalia (sketched first by Larsen and then made gorgeous by Ben Gibson). T. S.’s voice is quirky, funny, questioning, observant — everything you’d expect from an obsessive and intelligent protagonist. But it soon becomes clear that each member of T. S.’s family is using something to distance himself from the others and their shared tragedy. For T. S., it’s his compulsion to draw everything, as though that were a way way to pin down and understand events and people.

Larsen has created an interactive website, where you can explore characters and locations, and see images from the novel. A recent film version by Amélie‘s Jean-Pierre Jeunet has opened in Europe but not yet in the U. S. And for those longing for more on this blog about Norway, Larsen’s recent Hurtigruten trip was recently featured in The New York Times Travel section. 

FYI: The ship backs into Trondheim at about 10:50 minutes/seconds into the video. At 11:05 you can see the island of Monkholmen. I knew I could drag Trondheim into this somehow!

Posted in Adventure, Art, Travel, YA Lit | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Banned Books Week 2014

captain-underpants-thnI was searching my shelves for old copies of Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series and couldn’t find any. Evidently, in some crazed clear-out, I must have gotten rid of them. When my daughter was in 4th grade, these books were all the rage (I suspect they still are), and we had several.

I’ve just learned that Pilkey’s series is at the top of ALA’s 2012 list of banned/challenged books. Weird. Now that I want to read one in honor of Banned Books Week, I’ll have to visit a library.

Here’s Pilkey’s response to his status on ALA’s list, via YouTube:

Little House on the Prairie is in this stack!

Little House on the Prairie is here!

The New York Public Library’s recent exhibit on the history of children’s literature dedicated an alcove to banned books, with a six-foot tall stack of titles. I take courage in realizing that the perpetual challenges and bans are evidence of the power of the written word. (It’s also a bit depressing to realize that the film world doesn’t have an equivalent Banned Movies Week — evidently they can afford to be lackadaisical about what the good people of Middle America think of them.)

Read a Banned or Challenged Book. Let the world know that you’re not afraid of words.


Posted in Banned/Challenged Books, Graphic Novel, Humorous | Tagged | 2 Comments

Walkabout in Suffolk

The-Rings-of-SaturnW. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (1995/1998), tr. Michael Hulse.

Is this book fiction or non-fiction? memoir or history? travelogue or invention? random stream-of-consciousness or carefully constructed exploration of ideas? Each time I read it, I struggle to understand Sebald’s purpose here, and each time I come away with something different.

My first voyage through Sebald’s world occurred in the late 1990s, and I was struck by his wide-ranging knowledge. Reading his book was like a lesson in history, minus the footnotes. These days, it takes only moments to find the following: analyses of the literary and historical works the narrator references; an annotated “litmap” of the places, both real and virtual, the narrator visits; a photo missing from the English-language editions of this book (outraged reader response: Wait, what!?!); an in-depth discussion of Sebald’s use of images; and so on. Would these resources have changed my first reading? I can’t say. I remember thinking, as I peered at the final image, “How did he get from a walking tour of Suffolk to a history of sericulture? What is this book about?” I couldn’t figure out what made me connect with this meandering collection of memories embedded within stories embedded within descriptions.

Sebald’s photos (evidently discovered at car boot sales over several years) are odd: a mesh-covered window, a rocky landscape scratched almost beyond recognition, a white lighthouse looming over dark row houses. They “illustrate” the narrator’s tale, which ambles through history as he ambles through the mostly depressed area of early 1990s East Anglia (begging the question of which came first for Sebald — the photo or the tale). Once busy port towns (Lowestoft, Yarmouth, Dunwich) seem to crumble before his eyes, manor houses and piers sink into the heath or “German Sea”, an aviary’s last survivor pushes frantically against its cage wall: what the narrator notices as he hikes through Suffolk sets his mind wandering along historical trails in Africa, Asia and the American continents.

Silkworm and cocoon

Silkworm and cocoon

I particularly noticed during this most recent reading that what the narrator finds everywhere is violence and destruction. Nature herself is responsible for some — hurricanes, ocean storms — but most of the destruction is man-made, not just because of war, but also through efforts to control nature (felling age-old trees to create carefully managed grounds, mass drownings of silkworms to harvest their cocoons, overfishing herring almost to extinction). Underlying all Sebald’s musings is a world ravaged by WWII and the Holocaust. Born in Germany in 1944, Sebald spent his adult life teaching literature in England. All his novels [in addition to The Rings of Saturn, there are Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), and Austerlitz (2001)] work in similar ways as he composes literary fugues on the theme of humanity’s penchant for creating mass horror : fuzzy photos illustrate musings on famous writers, outsiders and emigrants, and the inevitable dissolution of empire.

from Barbara Hui's Litmap

from Barbara Hui’s Litmap

There is no narrative arc in The Rings of Saturn, unless it’s the one the narrator traces as he walks the coastline of Suffolk. He questions our understanding of the past: “… the representation of history … requires a falsification of perspective. We, the survivors, see everything from above, see everything at once, and still we do not know how it was.”

I suspect Sebald’s works are his own efforts to understand how and what Germany was in the 20th Century, something not attempted by the country during his youth there. He rarely refers to the horrors of WWII, yet inferences abound. For instance, he writes that Hitler’s efforts to make Germany self-sufficient in silk production resulted in research on

the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and the essential measures which are taken by breeders to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to preempt racial degeneration.

fire-forestAbout two-thirds of the way through, in a section on the loss of Britain’s wide-spread forests Sebald points out, “Our spread over the earth was fuelled by reducing the higher species of vegetation to charcoal, by incessantly burning whatever would burn.” Everything we make, he explains, requires combustion. “Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers.” He goes on:

From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities still shine through the night, and the fires still spread. In Italy, France and Spain, in Hungary, Poland and Lithuania, in Canada and California, summer fires consume whole forests, not to mention the great conflagration in the tropics that is never extinguished.

We are surrounded by conflagration, all of our own doing.

Sebald’s writing is dense (single paragraphs will go on for dozens of pages), esoteric (Thomas Browne, Edward Fitzgerald, Chateaubriand), non-linear, full of melancholy.  Reading anything by Sebald is hard work, for he wanders here and there; sometimes his trails lead somewhere, but often they simply fade, like tracks through tall grass, and I’m left wondering why he’s abandoned me. I still haven’t figured that out, and I know I need to visit his world several more times before I can make sense of it. At least it’s a world I’m happy to re-enter, regardless of the challenges I know await me there.

Posted in Fiction, History, Travel | Tagged | 2 Comments

Summer omnibus, part 2

More from my summer’s reading:

riverman-cover-678x1024Aaron Starmer, The Riverman (2014). In upstate New York, near the Canadian border, Alistair Cleary lives a normal life of taking dangerous dares and avoiding nosy neighbors. Then Fiona Loomis, not yet 13, asks him to write her biography. She tells him about an alternative world called Aquavania, accessible only through a special portal, where inhabitants essentially create their ideal environments. But with one drawback: the Riverman gradually collects the children who live there — accounting for some who have disappeared from the world we know. Alistair has to decide if Fiona’s imagination has taken her too far. How could such a world exist? And yet — there are moments from Alistair’s past that suggest she might be telling the truth. Creepy and satisfying, and its ending (implying a sequel) sent me straight to Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes for closure.

boxers&saintsGene Luen Yang, Boxers and Saints (2013). China’s Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th Century doesn’t strike me as food for YA lit, yet Yang has created two graphic novels set in this turbulent period of China’s history that grabbed me by the neck and dragged me through relentlessly searing scenes. During the waning years of the Qing Dynasty, missionaries and other Europeans arrive in China, bringing the religion and opium that threaten to destroy local culture and political stability. In the first volume, Little Bao, incensed by the missionaries’ destructive practices, leaves his village to lead the Boxer Rebellion, and in the second, Four-Girl abandons her cruel family to help a missionary set up a church. Mystical elements abound: Chinese gods and heroes help Little Bao and his army, and Joan of Arc inspires Four-Girl to seek the will of God. Bao and Four-Girl cross paths a couple of times, seemingly to no one’s benefit. Yang doesn’t gloss over the violent atrocities perpetrated by both sides — massacres abound, and the muted colors of his drawings are often splashed with blood. Read Boxers first, for the fullest impact.

41N71JFrlQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Joan Aiken, The Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories (2011). I don’t know how I missed growing up with Joan Aiken’s stories, but I’m happy to have discovered her at last. The stories in this collection date from as early as 1956, and several are published here for the first time. With a mixture of reality and fantasy (a gift of a mermaid causes friction, visions of octopi haunt a character), Aiken explores marriage, family relationships, independence, and regrets. Her language never fails to amuse. One woman has “a flat, square face like the back end of a tin loaf”. Mice approach a character “with caution … but with dignity, pausing at her slightest movement, putting their heads together as if they conferred, and then nimbling on again.” Nimbling! A quick peek at the OED shows Aiken didn’t invent this word, and serves only to underscore her amazing vocabulary. It perfectly describes what mice do, and now I need to write something in which I can use that word. One more thing: remember all those writers’ advice columns that tell us to eschew the adjective and adverb? Well, take a look at this sentence: “An aged Ford, lurching through the early winter dusk, which was partly mist, brought him to a large red-brick house, set baldly in the middle of a field.” Take out the five words I underlined (nearly 20% of the sentence) and you’re left with writing that limps along. Keep them, and the image to illustrate this page is in your head.

penguin-cover-george-eliot-middlemarchGeorge Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-72). I hope I don’t need to say much about this, considered by many to be the best English-language novel of all time. I’ve read it once every decade since the 1980s, and hope to squeeze in 2-3 more readings before what my father calls “the inevitable.” Eliot’s world, worth several visits, is rich with historical detail, the inner lives of her characters fully limned — so much so that many readers find the book ponderous and dead. Anyone who prefers non-stop action will not enjoy this book. But if you want to understand the choices people must make in order to live a useful life, then the stories of Dorothea’s disastrous marriage to Casaubon, of Dr. Lydgate’s downfall, and of Fred’s rescue from a debauched life will satisfy again and again.

Two additional summer books deserve separate posts, so watch for coming reviews of Rief Larsen’s T. S. Spivet and, at long last, W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn.

Posted in Adventure, Classic, Graphic Novel, Historical fiction, short stories, YA Lit | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Summer omnibus, part 1

Once again I find myself with a foot-tall stack of books I’ve read but not yet reviewed for my followers, next to a stack of papers to grade and projects to complete for school, which started 3 weeks ago. Normally, I would simply find space for these books in my shelves and move on, but this particular set is crying out for attention — for public praise. So, here goes: a whirlwind tour of my summer reading, in installments.

9780374379940Jack Gantos, From Norvelt to Nowhere (2013). This sequel to Gantos’ Newbery-winning Dead End in Norvelt puts the hero, Jack, aka “Gantos boy”, on the road in search of an escaped murderer of the old ladies of Norvelt. Although not as funny as the first volume in this series, and much more far-fetched, it remains true to Gantos’ characters. His semi-autobiograpical young protagonist is still the factotum for the arthritis-ridden Miss Volker. Before the model village of Norvelt disintegrates (houses destroyed or uprooted to be planted elsewhere, not to mention all those murders), Gantos and Volker head south, stopping at historic sites along the way. Meanwhile, the Cuban missile crisis and civil rights protests are in full swing, inspiring more of Miss Volker’s lessons in US history.

51sGio0ZJfL._SX200_Peter Ackroyd, London Under (2011). As I walked around London this past summer, Ackroyd’s history of everything that lay beneath the pavement was my guide. There is, of course, plenty here about the London Underground, but also about tunnels to carry water, gas pipes, and electrical cables; about ancient streams and rivers that still run under the City; and about the men who designed, built, and even partied in these massive subterranean constructions. In an interview with one underground worker, Ackroyd comments on the “sheer facticity of much human activity. It is not purposeless. It has all the fascination of making art. The obsession, the act of digging out the earth, is enough.” This book made me grateful for those obsessions.

18405507Margi Preus, West of the Moon (2014). “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” is one of my favorite fairy tales, so Preus’ title grabbed me. Astri narrates this short novel, comparing the challenging but happy adventures of a fairy heroine to the all-too-real horrors of her own life: sold to a cruel farmer, beaten and starved, treated worse than the goats she tends. It is soon clear that Astri’s master is no prince in disguise, so she makes her escape in true fairy-tale fashion: taking some of her master’s “magical” belongings with her. Her trek winds up on an immigrant ship to America. Preus deftly weaves references to several Norse tales into her plot, which sprang from events described in her great-great-grandmother’s diary. The personal connection is what makes this book golden.

ShadowHero-Cov-final2Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew, The Shadow Hero (2014). An Asian-American Superhero to stand next to Superman and Wonder Woman? Yang and Liew create the backstory for a Blazing Comics hero introduced in the 1940s. In those few issues that featured him, The Green Turtle’s face was never shown, and his “assistant” was a shadowy figure with slanted yellow eyes and a wide red mouth. Yang and Liew note that the few issues featuring The Green Turtle were drawn by Chu Hing, so they feel justified in making this hero the son of Chinese immigrants in one of California’s Chinatowns. The fight scenes of this graphic novel recall the “SMACK” and “POW” of the Golden Age of comics, and the tale of Hank’s evolution from the quiet son of a quiet shopkeeper into Man of Strength Who Cannot be Killed with a Gun pays homage not just to our favorite comic-book heroes, but also to the history and culture of Chinese immigrants to the US.

More to come in part 2.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Graphic Novel, History, Humorous, London Underground, Newbery Award, YA Lit | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment