Atrium, British Museum, 2014

I’ll take my own turn at expressing appreciation for Ursula K LeGuin’s books simply by quoting a few passages. Her intelligence and craft are clear, but what astounds me now as I race through her books (again) is her prescience.

To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think imitation is superior to invention.

The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination

Only one thing in the world can resist an evil-hearted man. And that is another man. In our shame is our glory. Only our spirit, which is capable of evil, is capable of overcoming it.

Ged to Arren, in The Farthest Shore (1973)

On the fruitless comparison of rates of technological innovation across cultures: “Compare the torrent and the glacier. Both get where they are going.” (The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969)

And finally, also from The Left Hand of Darkness, where LeGuin’s hero, Genli Ai, writes that patriotism doesn’t draw on love of country or even love of home, but rather on fear of the “other”:

If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both. It seemed to me as I listened to Tibe’s dull fierce speeches that what he sought to do by fear and by persuasion was to force his people to change a choice they had made before their history began, the choice between those opposites.

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Avid reader

I had to share this photo, which came from a friend. The reader is her granddaughter, caught up in Kenning Magic‘s story of Noni’s search for the Book of Spells.

The sequel, Kenning Stars, is progressing through its first revision, a painfully slow process — possibly because I’d rather do almost anything else. But I can stall no longer: writing regime begins tomorrow.

On another note, I plan to apply for another artist residency, this one in Canada. Watch for updates.

Posted in Am writing, Fantasy, Kenning Magic, Kenning Stars | 4 Comments

Welcome the story-tellers

A new year, a new chance to tell you about books you might love. Today, a set of three books that weave folktales and myths into the journeys of three children and their fellow travelers.

Grace Lin, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (2009), Starry River of the Sky (2012), and When the Sea Turned to Silver (2016).

Writer-illustrator Grace Lin grew up in upstate New York, where she and her two sisters were the only Chinese children in her school. Living in this cultural desert was difficult, and Lin admits to having been ashamed of her ethnic heritage. Her mother gave her books of Chinese folktales to read, and it’s Lin’s retellings of those tales that shape these three companion novels. Embedded in the books are also tidbits of Chinese culture: food, beliefs, values, clothing, village and family life. It’s easy to see that Lin is finding a way to acknowledge what she disliked so much in her childhood, and why she, however reluctantly, accepts the title of “multicultural children’s book author and illustrator”.

In each novel, the heroine or hero must set out on a journey of discovery or rescue — find a stolen object, rescue a kidnapped storyteller, save a troubled village. Along the way, various characters tell stories — myths about unhappy dragons, lost princesses, stolen jade, talking fish, and Magistrate Tiger (a worthy villain). Gradually, as the stories piled up in my memory, I started to see how they built on each other, picking up threads and carrying them a bit further, until the end, where I found the separate threads joining in a satisfying resolution. Only in Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds (another novel based in Chinese culture) have I seen a similarly entwined structure of plot and internal tales.

As if Lin’s beautiful rendering of Chinese folktales and legends weren’t enough, the publisher (Little, Brown) includes Lin’s full-color illustrations, along with sepia-toned line drawings at the head of each chapter. These all are gorgeously produced, the full-color drawings rich with reds and blues, greens and gold. Readers will be inspired to head to their nearest museum with holdings in Chinese art — vases in particular, whose glazes and shapes are echoed in Lin’s illustrations.

These books are written for middle-grade (ages 8-12) readers, but anyone who loves stories packed with brave protagonists, magical steeds, wise elders, evil villains and stalwart companions (of both animal and human form) will enjoy them. (She also has a fabulous web-site, with links to interviews, games, activities, essays, and even a TEDx talk.) Happy reading!

Posted in Adventure, Animal tales, dragons, Fantasy, YA Lit | Tagged | 1 Comment

Good grief!

What happened to December? I get sidetracked by work and family visits, and what do I find but an entire month has swept by.

Yet I can’t let 2017 end without one more post on this poor neglected blog. So here it is:

My year in review.

I didn’t join any reading challenges, so no check-in required. I wasn’t counting, but I think I managed 1-2 books per week, mostly new ones. Favorite book: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. I sat down to start it one day and didn’t stop until I’d finished it — the same day. Saunders, writing about President Lincoln at the worst point of the US Civil War (the North was losing badly) and of his personal life (his son, Willie, had just died), combines historical quotes from letters, journals, and news articles with the voices of fictional characters. The “Bardo” is a sort of purgatory, where the dead wait until they’re ready to go on to whatever is next. We find Willie there, at risk because he can’t leave his father (just as Lincoln can’t let Willie go — he visits the tomb at night to hold his son’s body). It’s a gorgeous, sad study of death and life and loss and moving on.

And now, to my major achievements:

  1. Traveled through Europe with friends and my daughter, visiting several new countries.
  2. Completed a first draft of the sequel to Kenning Magic.
  3. Taught my final semester of courses.

Now that teaching is off the calendar, I have time to get to long-dreamt-of projects (in between all the writing I’ll be doing): 1. Walk 2-5 miles whenever possible, to see how many Manhattan streets I can visit in a year. 2. Read some hefty books, perhaps even finish Proust (begun a couple of years ago and then set aside). 3. Visit more NYC museums.

So, expect some content here not related to reading or writing.

To all my readers, I send best wishes for a year filled with joy and pleasure and accomplishments.

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Winning isn’t everything

Here I am again, the good side of NaNoWriMo’s finish line. I’m far from the first to cross it, and in just 2 more days, a few hundred thousand other writers across the globe will have joined us. It’s a good feeling, as long as I don’t think about what comes next:


Last night I dreamt about being given an old jigsaw puzzle — a symbol so obvious that I can’t pretend I don’t get it. My draft is all out of order, teems with inconsistencies, even lacks some critical pieces.

Let’s see if I can drag a novel out of it before April.

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Quicksand in the “muddy middle”

A brief check-in:

I’m a bit over 13K words short of my 50K goal, and have only 7 days left! And just when I needed them most, Grant Faulkner’s comforting words came via NaNoWriMo’s Pep Talk series:

View the blank page as an invitation to drop a bucket into the well of your imagination. Don’t write what you know, write what you want to know.

I want to know where my story is going, and the only way to find out is to write it. So, here we go.

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I insist it isn’t writer’s block

My readers should know by now that I’m two weeks (nearly half-way) into NaNoWriMo, working on the sequel to Kenning Magic. If you check the tiny calendar in the right widget bar, you’ll see that I’m making sporadic progress, although I’m behind on word count by a bit more than a day. I should be at about 22K.

But I’m not worried. Yet. I can catch up this weekend. Or after Thanksgiving (which I’m celebrating on Tuesday instead of Thursday due to scheduling conflicts). Or after I’ve graded the latest stack of papers. Or after I’ve finished these two books by Diana Wynne Jones.

I’ll start to worry if I don’t put a few more green boxes into that calendar. Green marks productive days, where I write beyond the daily 1666-word minimum. Yellow marks days on which I’ve done some writing, but not the minimum. Red — well, you can probably guess. I like to think of those non-writing days as thinking days — figuring out plot, motivation, characters’ names. When he was quite young, a friend’s son used to protest, if accused of falling asleep in the car, “I wasn’t asleep, I was thinking!” I feel that way about “not writing” — I’m never not writing, even in those hours when I’m not racking up the word count.

Meanwhile, I’ve finished DWJ’s Hexwood and am nearly done with Fire & Hemlock. In the the first book, Jones plays around with the Arthurian legend, and in the second she riffs on Tam Lin. Each has something to say about how memory messes around with the world we think we live in. Hexwood is the more challenging read, looping back and forth across time, with characters older, then younger, then older again, as if each version of a self exists concurrently. I was half-way through the novel before I had enough pieces of this puzzle to understand what was going on, and I felt so proud of myself to have figured out a critical connection a whole page before it was revealed.

Fire & Hemlock, on the other hand, is much more straight-forward, the mystery lying in why things are happening. Why has Polly lost memories nearly a decade old? What is the secret that the beautiful Laurel is protecting? Who is Thomas Lynn? Whose side is Seb on? Chapter headings (quotes from Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer) provide a mythical touchstone that inevitably guides my expectations. I think I know where this is going — if I’m right, I’ll be pleased, but if I’m wrong, I’ll be even happier, because Jones will have provided, once again, a fantasy tale that surprised me from beginning to end.

For my NaNo project, I’ve written not quite 800 words today. I head off now for school, but I’ll get back to my project tonight. To my fellow NaNo-ers, Keep writing! To myself, the same. To my friends and readers, thanks for your support.

Posted in Am writing, Fantasy, NaNoWriMo | Tagged | 2 Comments