Autumn begins

The equinox is as good a time as any to turn over a new (orange-colored) leaf and make promises to oneself. For me, these promises require more diligence with my writing and reading, whether for work or for myself.

So far, I’m doing well work-wise, but that’s fairly easy. One of my courses is on multicultural literature for children, reading books from all over the map: two fantasies from India and China, a graphic novel set in Libya and Syria, picture books about the refugee experience, and novels set in Jamaica, on a Native American reservation, and in the Detroit home of Haitian immigrants.

This syllabus came together well before the 2016 US election, and I can’t help wishing that current politics hadn’t made the course’s topic so relevant, but my students (a multicultural group themselves) have jumped right in and are already finding ways to include one or two of the books in their own teaching.

Meanwhile, in the realm of reading-for-pleasure, books are moving quickly from the TBR stack to the D&D stack. Here’s a sampling:

Denton Little’s Deathdate, by Lance Rubin. In Denton’s world, everyone knows what day they’ll die, but not the exact moment or the means. We meet Denton the night before his deathdate, just before he attends his own funeral. This novel begins like Chris Crutcher’s Deadline — funny, quirky, narrated by a smart young man — but quickly shifts into a weirdness gear that’s funny, quirky, and mysterious, with plot twists that sent me spinning. The sequel is out, and I’m eager to read it.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Because it was about time I read it. Not a comfortable book, but clearly an important one. Still.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (part of my all-series-all-of-the-time challenge for 2017). Doug Adam’s trilogy, now maxed out at 6 volumes, still entertains, even after a tenth reading. But this time around Zaphod Beeblebrox bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to #45 — same MO, same reasoning (perhaps I flatter both with this word), same egomania morphing into megalomania. Could I be the only one to have noticed this? But somehow, Adams gives me hope. The universe will survive.

The Conch Bearer, the first installment in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s trilogy, and set in modern-day India (also, one of the books for my multicultural lit course). It’s Lost Horizons meets Harry Potter. Fun, magical, with so many references to Indian food that I want to get out my rice and lentils and fill my kitchen with the aromas of cumin, chili and cilantro. I just finished the series’ second book and am diving into the third. A fun read, for the history (Book 2 involves some time travel) as well as the fantasy.

Chimaera, arch detail

The Evil Wizard Smallbone, by Delia Sherman. If you haven’t read this book, get it now and read it. Funny, shiver-inducing (it takes place in Maine during a hard winter), and filled to the brim with books — the hero takes refuge in a bookstore called “Evil Wizard Books” in a town where everyone’s last name is “Smallbone”. You can’t get better than that.

And now to my writing: over the summer I had two nibbles from agents about my latest completed manuscript, but no bites. The nibbles, however, are encouraging; I feel I’m getting closer to finding a home for that project, so submissions continue. It’s time, however, to begin prep for NaNo 2017, and I can’t decide what to do: Dig out an old historical fiction MS that needs reworking to get it out before a 2021 centenary? or get back to the sequel to KM? or work more on that massive project set in the Middle Ages? I’ll keep you posted.

From OIF at ALA

As for this blog, my “new leaf” includes writing more frequent posts. A week from tomorrow, I start the Author Takeover Event on Saguaro Books’ Facebook page, and I hope a few of you find your way there (2 pm NYC time). Learn more about Saguaro’s authors and their books, ask some questions, play a game or two — win prizes!

Next week is also Banned Books Week, so visit your local library or small bookstore, find a banned book to read, and take a selfie of yourself finishing it. Post it on my Facebook page, with #IReadBannedBooks, and I’ll send you an image you can print up to make a one-of-a-kind bookmark. Again, you can’t get better than that.

Posted in Am reading, Am writing, Multicultural, NaNoWriMo | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“The chosen of All-Muggleton”

Packing for a lengthy trip that includes a great deal of moving on and off trains, buses, boats and trams (not to mention walking) presents a particular challenge for a reader who hopes to travel light: How many books should I bring? Will one thick book be enough to last the whole trip? Or should I instead pack several skinny books, abandoning each as I complete it? (Which begs the question: am I constitutionally able to abandon any book? My library says no, but I’m working on developing that skill.)

A week before the start of my recent 100-day trip, I had a short stack of possibles: a collection of essays, two books of poetry, two thick 19th century novels, and a favorite 20th century work that I’ve been wanting to reread*. Finally, after packing and unpacking and repacking, I settled on taking this:

Mr. Pickwick addresses the club, illus. Robert Seymour

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Charles Dickens (1837), 747 pp + notes

Like Dickens’ later novels, The Pickwick Papers was serialized. It ambles along as the Pickwickians travel in and beyond London. The light mood changes, however, when Mr. Pickwick’s landlady misconstrues his query about inviting someone to live with him, and he finds himself the defendant in a breach of promise case. Dickens satirizes greedy lawyers, interminable legal cases, debtors’ prison, and other evils he’d seen not just as a court reporter, but because his own father had been imprisoned for unpaid debts.

Some scenes could have inspired Feydeau, with doors slamming and people stumbling in the dark into the wrong room at the inn. The Pickwickians hire horses they don’t know how to ride, get lost, get taken advantage of, get caught up in a near riot during an election, sneak around back gardens at night. After a rook-hunt that wounds more than the birds, Mr. Pickwick is offered the opportunity to watch a cricket match. “I, sir,” replied Mr. Pickwick, “am delighted to view any sports which may be safely indulged in, and in which the impotent effects of unskilful people do not endanger human life.”

In short, Pickwick is a Dickensian delight, with dozens of characters, memorable lines (“There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat.” “No man knows how much he can spend, till he tries.”) and entire chapters that made me giggle with delight.

Mr. Pickwick in chase of his hat, illus. R. Seymour

I initially worried that the book wouldn’t last the entirety of my trip, which required that I limit myself to 7 or 8 pages per day. So of course if another book came my way, I set Dickens aside to read it (Storm in the Village by ‘Miss Read’, Robertson Davies’ Cornish Trilogy, Eva Ibbotson’s The Star of Kazan).

And then, of course, there were days at the end of which I had no energy to read anything. Museums, palaces, medieval churches — at times my eyes and mind were so full that I couldn’t bear the thought of deciphering words on a page.

But I was delighted by how easy it was to jump into Pickwick again after a break of a week or more. In a sense, I experienced the novel as its first readers had done: in weekly installments of several chapters. No difficulty remembering what had just happened, no confusions about who was who, no struggles to find my way through convoluted plots or language. Just happiness to be back with Pickwick, Sam Weller, and all the others. I finished the book on the flight home, and was tempted to start again.

So, if you’re looking for that one book to get you through a lengthy journey, this could be it.

*For the curious: this stack comprised Thoreau (essays), collected works of the romantic poets and Yeats (poetry), The Brothers Karamazov and Pickwick (19th C novels), and Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (20th C work). Also, All-Muggleton is a cricket club that defeats Dingley Dell (see Pickwick, Chapter VII).

Posted in Adventure, Classic, Fiction, Humorous, Travel, Travel book | Tagged | 8 Comments

Adventures finished

WP_20170726_046Just a quick post, to let my readers know I’ll be back soon, blogging about books and writing and other stuff.

Meanwhile, turn on that radio in back of you and let’s go dancin’ in the street!

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Away message

Having adventures. Will be back eventually.

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Susan, left behind

Tulsa: toadstools on a foggy morning

Lev Grossman, The Magicians (2009), The Magician King (2011), The Magician’s Land (2014)

CS Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (7 books, 1950-1956)

Warning: If you haven’t read The Chronicles of Narnia, some critical plot elements are revealed here.

For about an hour after finishing the final book in Lewis’s Narnia series, I wanted to call this post “I see dead people” because of the final page of The Last Battle. Lewis’s version of Revelations ties everything up with, SPOILER ALERT, Narnia closing shop for good and Aslan deciding who gets to go “further up and further in”, and who is sent back to the Shadowlands (the real world). Turns out, ANOTHER SPOILER ALERT, there was a train crash and everybody had been dead all along but just needed to work their way to Lewis’s idea of heaven — which is Narnia without the baddies!

Except for poor Susan, left behind because she no longer believed in Narnia (despite Aslan having told the Pevensies and the reader in a previous novel that when the children got too old, they’d no longer return to Narnia because they had to “learn to know Aslan by another name” — an obvious reference to Christ, but also, I think, a suggestion that everyone grows up and leaves childish things like Narnia behind). Susan betrayed, inhabitants of Shadowlands betrayed, reader betrayed.

There’s been lengthy discussion of why Lewis chose to exclude Susan from his happy ending (see this for a Christian take, and the opposite view from Philip Pullman here), but to be honest, I wasn’t thinking about her at all when I closed the last book. I was just plain mad that Lewis had killed off every hero and heroine and sent them to an adventure-free Narnia. What kind of ending is that?

I was re-reading Lewis for the first time in a few decades because I had just finished Grossman’s trilogy that is so clearly inspired by the Narnia books. You don’t need to know the Narnia books to appreciate Grossman’s tale, but reading the two together makes it impossible to ignore the strengths of one and weaknesses of the other.

Let’s start with Grossman’s premise: Quentin is a huge fan of a fantasy series by Christopher Plover, in which children from the Chatwin family travel through a grandfather clock to the magical land of Fillory and become its rulers. So far, so neatly parallel. Readers will find lots of other parallels: sea voyages, doughty swordsmen, talking animals, mysterious islands, terrifying monsters, a varied geography and diverse cultures.

Nova Scotia

But Grossman’s sidetracks are what make his series a better one. First, imagine learning as an adult that the Chatwins actually existed and Plover’s stories of their Fillorian adventures were based on fact. And you can go there yourself! Even rule the land with your best friends!

Hands up, anyone who wishes you could live in Middle Earth or Earthsea or Camelot or Diagon Alley or any other of the great mythical worlds, not just by immersing yourself in books and wikis and films, but by actually going there (theme parks don’t count). Well, Quentin is among you, and his wish comes true: Fillory takes him in and makes him one of its kings. Adventures ensue, but (and here’s another place where the two series diverge) Quentin and his earthborn cohorts are also magicians, which usually comes in handy when they meet evil.

Another difference is Fillory’s equivalent to Aslan, Lewis’s deus ex leo who always steps in when his protagonists meet a truly dangerous challenge. All a Pevensie needs to do is call for the lion’s help, and they’re saved (with just a few cuts and bruises to show for their effort). In Fillory, however, two enigmatic and unreliable rams, Ember and Umber, set quests for Quentin et al., and then pretty much leave them on their own. Some of the best die on these quests, and others are horribly maimed. A couple just fall off the map. Literally.

About half-way through The Magician’s Land, Quentin points out something I’m sure we’ve all felt:

“I used to think about [what magic is for] a lot …. I mean, it’s not obvious like it is in books. It’s trickier. In books there’s always somebody standing by ready to say hey, the world’s in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take the ring and put it in that volcano over there everything will be fine.

“But in real life that guy never turns up. He’s never there. He’s busy handing out advice in the next universe over. In our world no one ever knows what do do, and everyone’s just as clueless and full of crap as everyone else, and you have to figure it all out by yourself. And even after you’ve figured it out and done it, you’ll never know whether you were right or wrong. You’ll never know if you put the ring in the right volcano, or if things might have gone better if you hadn’t. There’s no answers in the back of the book.”

That’s it. That’s what drew me into The Magicians and what makes Narnia so easy to dismiss. Quentin’s world, despite its fantastic and magical elements, is one that seems real to me, just as Earthsea and Middle Earth and even Hogwarts feel real, because life in each is an incomprehensible mess. I have to compare Aslan’s promising an easy quest to Jill Pole, in The Silver Chair, if she follows his instructions, with Galadriel’s lament that she and Celeborn have “fought the long defeat.” There is no long defeat in Lewis’s world, what with “further up and further in” and Narnia 2.0 rewarding everyone, just like a stop at a DQ on the way home from church. Lewis’s plot resolutions are contrived, simplistic, unsatisfying, because he’s committed to sticking with his religious themes. Aslan HAS to save the children each time, because they must learn to leave everything in His hands.

This brings me back to Susan Pevensie, condemned to the Shadowlands because she has come to doubt Narnia’s existence. In Grossman’s world, there’s an equivalent character who denies her trips to Fillory: Fiona, the eldest Chatwin daughter. But Fiona isn’t punished. She simply gets on with her life, despite the disappearance of two siblings (both end up living in Fillory). But Susan loses her entire family because she’s more interested in “nylons and lipstick and invitations”. So, because she’s a shallow teenager, she’s left behind? Seems a bit harsh to me. Yet, I’d choose Susan’s fate over what the rest of her family receive from Lewis’s pen — Susan gets a life.

Posted in Adventure, Fantasy, Travel | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A series of series

dsc02063I’ve been back in NYC for 3 weeks now and am just about recovered from my travels — in time to start planning my next sojourn (more on which later).

Lengthy travels make me long for homely comforts — my own food, bed, and favorite books. So when I returned, I made some mac-n-cheese and, with a stack of books next to my bed, indulged myself.

First I took myself off to Earthsea, thinking magical stories set in the Archipelago would be sufficient distraction from current political realities. But as hundreds of thousands of women were preparing to march worldwide, LeGuin’s feminist U-turn in her created world only underscored what is now at risk.

The first 3 Earthsea books were published 1968-1973 and set in a male-only world of wizardry, where the saying Weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic was frequently repeated (note: only by wizards). There are hints of the Old Powers (connected to women), but Ged, with a woman’s help, escapes them. Then, LeGuin has a rethink and, beginning in 1990, she goes back to Earthsea to try to figure out why men fear women.

Why men fear women. Of course not all men and of course not all women. Earthsea holds wizards who welcome women as sources of magical power and try to learn from them; there are also women who are happy to leave magic in the hands of men — yet they’re still subject to the whims of men, whether wizard or not. But that question of fear is critical: The wizards fear death so much that they change it into a prison rather than a release. They fear women so much that they ban them from their lives, convinced that loving relationships will sap their powers and defile their sacred groves.

I leavened the mental challenges of diving into Earthsea with a quick run through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s semi-autobiographical Little House books. My favorites in this series are By the Shores of Silver Lake and The Long Winter, which cover her family’s first two years in Dakota Territory, including a horrifying winter of non-stop blizzards during which her family nearly starves. My companion for this series is Pioneer Girl (Wilder’s autobiography), annotated and illustrated with photos, maps, and other resources that show how Wilder, with assistance from her daughter, turned a lively but brief set of memories into 7 carefully crafted novels.

And then, since I haven’t yet read the third novel in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series, I started that set (I’m now about 70% done with the first book).

Which sparked the idea for this year’s reading theme: series, for both children and adults. This gives me the excuse to wallow in the comfort of the familiar (here I come, EF Benson and Arthur Ransome, possibly even JRRT), and the push to finally open unread installments in other series (including The Brotherhood of the Conch, set in India).

Because I’m still working on my own writing, I can’t promise to post much about the books I read, but I’ll come back now and then to let you know how I progress. As for my next sojourn: a lengthy trip in spring and summer will take me back to the UK and Scandinavia, and then on into Eastern Europe. Trains and boats and planes!

Posted in reading, Series | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Winding down, revving up

British Museum, Imdugud, about 2500 BC

British Museum, Imdugud, about 2500 BC

Episode 5 from my Writer’s Studio in the Woods series.

I’m sitting in front of my penultimate fire at the Guild’s central room. It seems to have caught — at last! — so I can take this moment to put 2016 to bed and wake up 2017.

Yesterday was the official end of my artist’s residency, although I don’t actually leave until the 3rd. Last night I was asked if I’d written as much as I’d wanted — No, but I wrote much more than I’d expected, so that’s an accomplishment. After the mad and enervating dash of NaNoWriMo, I didn’t think I’d have the energy to wrestle the raw draft into something others could read. But I did — and I now have about 150 pages’ worth of decent story. I didn’t get to the end, but I know now how it will end, and I’m nearly there.

For 2017, my goals are simple: read more, write more. This year’s wish-list includes finding an agent and/or publisher for my MG fantasy, but I know that won’t just land in my lap. Ergo, “write more” means queries as well as fiction.

The writing tasks I have ahead of me will, I must confess, make it easier for me to neglect this blog. I’m not going away, just stepping back for a while. Of course, if anything exciting happens, it’ll find its way here.

Meanwhile, best wishes to all for a new year that brings satisfaction in all arenas. And for anyone who’s keeping track, we’ve had at least 4 feet of snowfall in the month I’ve been here.

Posted in Am writing | 4 Comments