Monday, June 30, 2003

Another influence Natalie Goldberg had on me through Thunder and Lightning was her high recommendation of books by Wallace Stegner and Carson McCullers. (Actually, it might have been Barbara Kingsolver who recommended McCullers--I'm not sure.) So I checked out the collected stories of Carson McCullers, and while I prefer my short stories wry and snarky rather than depressing or disillusioned, they were, for the most part, worth the read. Then I picked up Stegner's Crossing to Safety.

Goldberg says that this was one of those books that she picked up every time she went into a bookstore, and put back down again after reading the sappy summary on the back cover. I would have done the same without her recommendation. Even as I began it I had some trepidation, with the unfounded notion that Stegner was some sort of Western writer; fortunately, I couldn't have been more wrong. Crossing to Safety is a beautiful story that I will not try to describe since a plot summary never captures the truth of the book. In the case of this book that is even more accurate, so I will just say that I could hardly put it down. I was sucked in by the complexity and feeling of the characters, the rich wash of the prose, and the compelling development of the story. Even that description sounds contrived and uninteresting, but I assure you that the book is anything but. Wallace Stegner will definitely remain on my list of books to seek out.

Saturday, June 28, 2003

In my two most recent reads I came across oddly connecting quotes that pertain to a point I made some time ago in my post on Richard Panek's book on astronomy, Seeing and Believing. J.D. Salinger says in Franny and Zooey, through Franny, that
Everything everybody does is so--I don't know--not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and--sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way.
While I think the answer to this problem can be found in the rest of the book, I wouldn't have understood it fully without this quote from Jack Finney's absolutely terrific time-travel novel Time and Again:
Today's faces are different; they are much more alike and much less alive... there was... an excitement in the streets of New York in 1882 that is gone... Their faces were animated, they were glad to be just where they were, alive in that moment and place... they felt [pleasure] at being outdoors, in the winter, in a city they liked... [they] moved through their lives in unquestioned certainty that there was a reason for being. And that's something worth having, and losing it is to lose something vital.
Of course there have always been cynics and pessimists, but I think it is true that many more people nowadays have been so disillusioned that they can think of nothing worth living for, and spend their lives in a constant trudge of distraction until they forget even that there should be a reason for living.

Something I like to do to alleviate the boredom of driving is to observe the faces of drivers around me, particularly when I am stopped at a stoplight and watching the traffic go in the other direction; and while it may just be that driving is not conducive to any sort of enjoyment, the expressions on people's faces are indeed nearly all alike. Even emotions such as anger or annoyance are rarely apparent; rather a uniform dull quality masks each personality. And I don't doubt that I often have a similar mask, despite my lifelong belief in the best reason of all. Humans in general find it too easy

to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion. (Pascal, Pensees)
Diversion is even more abundant in this era of satellite TV, video games, magazines, sexual promiscuity, self-help books, and the Internet; at least the Victorians had simple parlor games that required imagination and creativity for amusement. When we do think about what we are, or what reason we have for being, it is in the context of self; there is no destiny or divinity or even community. Philosophy is not quite dead, but even those who still take interest in it often miss the mark. I'm not sure there's anyone alive today who really grasps what it is to be a philosopher, but I think it may rest in that unshakable faith in something beyond the daily grind, and the ability to, through that faith, find excitement in the wonderful world in which we are so privileged to live.

Friday, June 27, 2003

Odious had a recent post (now, unfortunately, lost in the Blogger archives) concerning his two basic rules about wine, one of which is, drink what you like. As I have just drunk half a bottle of a decent little Italian wine, which I liked very much, I will deviate from my usual blogfare and expand on this theory to include music.

Nearly all the characters in the movie High Fidelity have a knowledge of music (at least in the very wide genre of rock) that astounds me. Even if I cared enough about any kind of music, I simply haven't the brain capacity to remember all those tiny details. It would be like remembering every chapter title in even my favorite books--these are things I just don't pay attention to. I have to admit a certain admiration for such single-minded people, even as I remind myself that they are singularly dull in anything but a movie.

So I started thinking about my music collection (which doesn't even exist in comparison to that owned by John Cusack's character), which is eclectic to say the least, but not nearly as interesting or obscure as many people's. But I don't care, because it's what I like. The two CDs most often in my stereo are Norah Jones and the Buffy musical soundtrack, and my most recent buys are Loggins and Messina's Full Sail (it all started with our friends' honeymoon stop in Lahaina) and Celtic Fiddles of Ireland, and I just bought tickets to the Santa Fe Opera's production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte. Happily disregarding Odious's second rule, that some wines are superior to others, I am content to enjoy the music I like--Sarah MacLachlan, Jewel, J.S. Bach (particularly the Brandenburgs and violin concerti), Dave Matthews Band, Anne-Sophie Mutter playing anything, Dido, Jaci Velasquez, John Coltrane, Suzanne Vega, Chanticleer, Dixie Chicks, the Duets soundtrack, Handel's Messiah, Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie... and leave the expertise to the experts.

Thursday, June 26, 2003

After a nice little chat with my mother about Charles de Lint yesterday, I started thinking about this wonderful genre of contemporary fantasy of which de Lint's books are a perfect example. My mother says that she doesn't think any other authors can compare, and I am inclined to agree, yet there is a surprising wealth of wonderful books in his genre that I've found recently. Thus I decided to put together my own (incomplete, of course) little list of what I consider to be the very best kind of fantasy--the kind that can be compared to Charles de Lint. The Endicott Scuttlebutt comes closest to describing it, as mythic fiction: ..."stories set in the modern or historical world...infused with mythic imagery, mystery, and magic...using timeless themes and symbolism drawn from world mythology, medieval romance, folklore, and fairy tales." So here are my favorite authors of contemporary fantasy/mythic fiction, followed by the titles of their books that I have read and/or preferred.

Charles de Lint, The Little Country, Memory and Dream, Moonlight and Vines
Pamela Dean, Tam Lin, Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary
Terri Windling, The Wood Wife
Jonathan Carroll, Sleeping In Flame, Bones of the Moon, The Land of Laughs
Emma Bull, War for the Oaks
Kara Dalkey, Crystal Sage
Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors, American Gods
Midori Snyder, Hannah's Garden
Holly Black, Tithe
Peter David, Knight Life
Elizabeth Hand, Waking the Moon, Black Light, Last Summer at Mars Hill
Nina Kiriki Hoffman, A Red Heart of Memories, The Silent Strength of Stones
Peter S. Beagle, Tamsin
Connie Willis, Miracle and Other Christmas Stories
Nancy Bond, The String in the Harp
Edward Eager, Knight's Castle
James A. Hetley, The Summer Country
Louise Marley, The Glass Harmonica

Monday, June 16, 2003

Recently finished reading Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones--what a pleasant surprise! For a book that begins, "I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973", it ended so sweetly and hopefully, yet without a hint of sappiness, that I felt briefly uplifted from our too-often tawdry society. For those of you who have not read this sleeper hit, the narrator is indeed dead, watching, from her heavenly view, the continued lives of her family and friends and recalling events from her brief life on earth. It's well-written, touching, and (most importantly) eminently readable and interesting. An excellent book to devour lying on the couch before an open window, while a summer breeze cools the house and a couple of cats sprawl lazily at your feet.

Saturday, June 14, 2003

Every now and then I have to read an inspirational book on writing to make myself at least feel guilty about not writing, if not actually inspired to write. There's a shelf in our house dedicated almost entirely to such books--Elizabeth Berg's Escaping Into the Open, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, The Writer's Home Companion, The Writer's Book of Days, and of course Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind.

Re-readings of the last two have never failed to inspire me, but it wasn't until I read her more recent work, Thunder and Lightning, that I felt specifically inspired. Perhaps it's because the other two books are focused on writing practice (which I find helpful but not as essential as Goldberg does), while this one takes writing practice and tells you where to go with it. It could also be because I'm struggling with my current work-in-progress, and any bit of advice is helpful at this point. Still it's always good to be reminded of simple things, such as, be sure to make your characters interesting or no one is ever going to want to finish reading your story; as well as hints on how to do such a thing.

I also thought that reading this book helped me to understand what it means to write what you know, but as I tried to put the idea into words, I became even more confused. However, I do think it has less to do with writing directly from one's own life and experiences, and more with relating what you write to what you know. And no, I'm not going to unpack that sentence--figure it out for yourself.

Thursday, June 12, 2003

This morning before I went to work I was reading Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and got so involved that I was late for work and spent the whole morning looking forward to coming home and finishing the book. It was a nice feeling, and one that I haven't felt for a while.Though Winchester's style is a bit pedantic, it could hardly have been otherwise with such a subject, and actually makes the book even more interesting. Besides getting a vocabulary booster, I was reminded how impossible we would find life without dictionaries. Just imagine, Shakespeare had no idea if he was using words correctly, and no way of finding out; of course, that's probably partly why he made so many up. It's beyond my comprehension to live in a place and time where no standard for language exists. Okay, so I'm easily amazed, but what a blessing for us that philologists not only recognized but filled this great need.

Monday, June 02, 2003

For a quick and fun read, try Peter David's Sir Apropos of Nothing. It's a fantasy novel about an obviously unlikely hero who immerses himself in a fairy tale of great proportion by being not brave and honest, but devious, cowardly, and mostly in the wrong place at the wrong time. He encounters a myriad of strange characters along his journey, of which my favorites were the Harpers Bizarre, offspring of the Harpies and possessed of beautiful hypnotic voices. It's quite an amusing book--decidedly odd (though the sequel, The Woad to Wuin, promises to be much odder), with lots of clever puns and sly jokes.

"The recently slain knight also had his heart in the right place. This had turned out to be something of an inconvenience for him. After all, if his heart had been in the wrong place, then the sword wouldn't have pierced it through, he wouldn't be dead, and I wouldn't be in such a fix."

Well, maybe not so sly, but still funny.