- Participating in Classical Carousel‘s House of Mirth read-along. We’re reading and discussing the novel over the course of six weeks. I’ve been trying to stay on schedule and read it slowly. I read House of Mirth in college, and that initial read took me a few days, because we had one or two class periods for discussion before the class moved on to other material. I feel like the leisurely pace is allowing my a different perspective and I’m picking up a lot more. I’d encourage anyone interested to join in.
- Toying with the idea of releasing a collection of short fiction. I have a lot of short stories that I’ve written over the years that I’ve never really been sure what to do with. Most of them are inspired by other stories, mythology, fairy tales, folklore etc. Some follow the source material closely others give it a mere nod before going off in their own direction. I would probably have to go through them and decide on a direction for the collection and what to include, but I’d like to get a very general sense of how much interest there is. So if you think it’s a good idea, like this post!
- Writing a whole looong blog post about the Sarah Dessen/Common Read/grad student twitter hoopla. Then I decided not to post it. It seems like emotions on all sides are very high and people are very quick to take offense. Chiming in at such moments doesn’t strike me as the best idea because words are easily taken out of context leading to more offense and hurt feelings. But I do want to say, independent of all this, that twitter by it’s nature often takes things out of context (it’s hard to include context within a small, character limited, tweet!) so when something is discussed in a tweet, it’s important to seek out that context before we react, especially when emotions are running high. Also remember how easy it is to react to things in the space of a tweet. We can delete the tweet but if someone screenshots it, it can live forever. Think before you tweet.
- Reading Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea. Like The Night Circus, it’s a book whose setting stands out over other elements such as plot and character. But there’s an intricacy that The Night Circus lacks in that the setting and the plot are inextricably linked and fitted together like a puzzle. As I read it, I’m wowwed at the complexity of what Morgenstern managed to do with the multiple stories that make up this novel. Each one becomes a nest for the next one. I can see why this took her years to write! It’s rare that a highly anticipated novel manages to live up to expectations. I can see where some readers my be frustrated by the Chinese box of narratives that make up this book and want more traditional storytelling, but to me, it all unfolds like a beautiful, mysterious magic trick. I haven’t finished it yet though. The complexity means that it’s not as “quick” a read as most, and I’m also a bit anxious. I’m afraid that Morgenstern won’t be able to maintain this spell all the way through to the end.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about how prevalent women are in contemporary Sci-Fi and Fantasy literature as writers and literary characters, and how that should be recognized. There have been some really great pieces that address this and also bemoan the genre’s conflicted relationship with women in the past. This is only a sampling:
- Sleeps With Monsters: Stop Erasing Women’s Presence in SFF by Liz Bourke
- Is the Future Female? Fixing sci-fi’s women problem by Molly Flatt
- Science Fiction’s Women Problem
However, most of these critiques and praises are aimed at contemporary SFF. When I think about SFF, I start to wonder why it was ever perceived as a “men’s genre.” It’s hard to see where any literary genre starts, but a case can certainly be made the that modern SFF novel was born with a teenage Mary Shelly, writing Frankenstein in 1818. Of course you could make the case that the genre was born in the seventeenth century, when Margaret Cavindash wrote The Blazing World. In 1762, Sarah Scott wrote the Utopian novel A Description of Millenium Hall. So the argument can be made that the roots of the genre go back a hundred and fifty years before Shelly started writing. In any case, women played a formative role in the very roots of the genre. Shelly was undoubtedly an influence on Jane Webb Loudon, who wrote The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty Second Century in 1827.
Feminist Utopian novels such as Man’s Rights (1870) by Annie Denton Cridge, Mizora (1880-81) by Mary E. Bradley Lane and Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915) were somewhat prevalent before WWI. After the war, women were even more prolific in the genre. Gertude Barrows Bennett (aka Francis Stevens) is credited as “the woman who invented dark fantasy,” penning a number of novels in the early twentieth century. Her work, including Claimed and Citadel of Fear, influenced the likes of HP Lovecraft. Thea von Harbou is best known as the wife of filmmaker Friz Lang, but she was a writer, actor and filmmaker in her own right. She wrote the futuristic urban dystopia, Metropolis, in 1925. She later rewrote it as a screenplay for Lang’s adaptation that eventually became the classic 1927 film of the same name. In 1928, Virginia Woolf ventured into the genre with Orlando. Though that novel is often looked at as a pioneering work in terms of feminist and transgender studies, it’s also undeniably a fantasy. It’s about a character, born in Elizabethan England as a man, who undergoes a mysterious sex change at the age of 30 and then lives another 300 years without aging perceptibly.
By the 1930’s Catherine Lucille Moore (aka CL Moore) had created the character Jirel of Joiry, who appeared in a series of sword and sorcery stories originally published in the magazine Weird Tales. Jirel of Joiry was a female warrior in an imagined alternate version of medieval France. Fun side fact: in 1985 SFF author Mercedes Lackey wrote a song called Jirel of Joiry and included it on her album Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. After WWII writers including Shirley Jackson, Judith Merril, and Alice Eleanor Jones came to prominence. By the 1950’s and 1960’s authors including Joanna Russ, Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Madeline L’Engle , Angela Carter and Ursula K Le Guin, had begun publishing.
Today you could argue that women dominate the speculative fiction genres with Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and Twilight. Dive even a little deeper and you’ll turn up Diana Gabaldon and Charlaine Harris who both had their bestselling fantasy series’ turned into hit TV adaptations. And that’s just the tip of the bestselling iceberg! In fact, women have produced some of the most notable and influential works in the speculative fiction genre. Beginning (perhaps) with Frankenstein, and continuing with Orlando, The Left Hand of Darkness, A Wrinkle in Time, The Handmaid’s Tale, and many more. So why is there a perception that their involvement with the genre is something new?
Well, I think that part of it is that the contributions of women to literature have been overlooked and ignored historically. Part of it may be due to the fact that many of these authors initially published under pseudonyms, initials or gender neutral names. But it makes sense that a genre that depends on seeing the world not as it is but as it could be, might appeal to writers who have been dismissed and ignored due to factors such as race, class, and gender.
In fact, I think that it can be argued that speculative fiction and SFF is where storytelling as an art form begins. Oral tradition featured folklore and mythology. Telling stories is a nurturing act in which the listener is connected to the storytelling through the story. Historically women filled this nurturing role. The 9th century fictional Scheherazade is both a character and the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights, in which she saves herself from execution by telling stories. This oral tradition of fantasy has been recorded by men (the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault) but also women. Madame d’Aulnoy coined the term “contes de fées (fairy tales)” as we now use it, 130 years before the birth of the Grimm Brothers).
So women have been shaping, creating, writing, and playing a starring role in SFF and speculative fiction since it began. How about finally giving them credit for playing a major role in the creation of the genre, and its development, instead if treating it as something new?
Since I finished my reads for this Persephone Readathon a bit early, I thought that I’d take on some of the challenges.
The book follows Hilary Wainright, a British intellectual who married Lisa, a French girl, just prior to WWII. They were separated just before the German occupation, with Lisa stuck in Paris with their newborn son, and Hilary in England. Lisa was a resistance worker and was killed during the war. The baby disappeared. After the war, Hilary returns to France to try to find his son. He has a friend who is devoted to helping him, but he’s not sure how he’ll know if the child (who he only saw as a newborn) is his. Furthermore, after his wife’s death, Hilary successfully turned off his emotions. He is reluctant to make himself emotionally vulnerable again.
Beautiful Endpapers: Show us a photo of your current book’s endpapers/your favorite Persephone endpapers/or design your own endpapers.
This is the endpaper used in Little Boy Lost:
In Six Words: Describe your current Persephone read in 6 words.
Quote This: Share a quote from your current read.
I think this quote sums up the main character’s dilemma through out the book.
“You see, Pleaded Hilary, I am incapable of giving. I dare not give and so I’m running away. I’ve finished with ordeals. I am fleeing to the anesthesia of immediate comfort and absolute non-obligation.”
The book ends with a beautiful passage that I won’t quote here because of spoilers.
Read This: Give a book recommendation/readalike based on a Persephone title.
My recommendation in this case would be another Persephone book: Saplings by Noel Streatfeild. Like Little Boy Lost, Saplings looks at what happens to children during wartime, and like Little Boy Lost, it’s not pretty. But the children in both these books are in some sense lucky. They’re not exposed to direct violence and they’re not left without adult care. To some extent, their physical needs for food and shelter are met. Yet they all suffer terrible loss and lack the consistency and affection that children need.
Page to Screen: Share the Persephone title you would most like to see adapted for the screen. Include your dream cast if you’d like.
Well Little Boy Lost was made into a film in 1953. It was a musical starring Bing Crosby which seems like a very odd choice given the source material. I haven’t seen it but I’d kind of like to out of morbid curiosity. Crosby seems totally miscast as the Hilary I imagine. In terms of contemporary actors I think that Matthew Goode or Harry Lloyd might work.
For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday:
June 4: Books From My Favorite Genre (You pick the genre, and give us your ten faves.)
Since I’ve done more than one “Favorite books in x genre” list, I decided to do a top ten list of past genre lists:
- Top Ten Tuesday: Gothic Romance
- Top Ten Tuesday: Time Travel
- Top Ten Tuesday: “Girl”-ish Suspense Novels
- Top Ten Tuesday: Best Dual Timeline Novels
- Top Ten Tuesday: Best Lesser Known Romances
- Top Ten Tuesday: Hidden Gems of Magical Realism
- Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books About Books
- Top Ten Tuesday: Nonfiction That Taught Me Something New
- Top Ten Tuesday: Best Novellas and Short Stories
- Fairy Tale Retellings
Last year I posted about my first #NaNoWriMo experience. Beautiful was the result (after several years of revision and editing!). This year, I’m going to do a sort of modified #NaNoWriMo. Instead of writing 50,000 words of a rough draft, I’m going to finish the rough draft of my current WIP. It’s currently ~35,000 words, and instead of setting any hard goals for each day, I will write every day in November until it’s done. I don’t have the time to write a full novel this month, and I also don’t want to lose momentum on my current project, so wish me luck on my Personal Novel Finishing Month, or #PerNoFiMo
A few months ago I was talking to someone about writing. He asked what genre I wrote and I said “Fantasy.” He said “That’s nice. At least you don’t have to worry about research.” Well, that would be false. All writers are different of course, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I definitely do research as a fantasy writer.
When I first started writing Beautiful, I was just throwing my imaginings on the page, and I hadn’t really done much research or preparation. But when I realized that I was writing a variant of Beauty and the Beast, I started to do some research. Specifically, I started with Google. I think I literally looked up “beauty and the beast story variations” found some interesting articles. Some sites I found particularly helpful were Pook Press, Jenni of Shalott and SurLaLune Fairy Tales. I read up on some animal bridegroom tales from other cultures. I wanted to see what themes emerged in common among these stories and where they differed. I also read a lot of existing retellings. I discuss some favorites and some observations in this post. I also read a lot of contemporary discussions on the story, including popular claims that it’s about Stockholm Syndrome (here’s my rebuttal if you’re interested) and I decided that I wanted to write something in which there weren’t any real captives. I also watched a lot of film versions of the story. For about a year I lived I Beauty and the Beast themed life, and I reflected a bit about the story and why it appealed to me. I wasn’t sure how much of this would end up making it into my book, but it was interesting food for thought.
Another layer of research came as I was revising. I wanted the book to be set in a sort of generic “past” rather than a specific time and place. But I still needed to look up things that the characters do. For example, in one scene, Finn, a wealthy, privileged character who has always had servants to do things for him, is on his own in the wilderness. He must build a fire. In the first draft I brushed over this, because I was more interest in getting everything down. But as I revised I had to get more specific. As far as I’m concerned, building a fire involves striking a match, so that took research. In another scene, the heroine, Eimear, is stung by a jellyfish. Fortunately, that’s never happened to me, so I needed to do research to find out what that looks and feels like, and how it’s treated. Google was again, helpful here. I have no idea how writers did research in the pre-Google days!
Another element of research come in as I was building my fantasy world. The courts are based on a classification system derived from Scottish folklore. But within those environments I included other classifications from William Butler Yeats and Katherine Marie Briggs. I also included creatures from different folkloric traditions. One book that I used a lot was The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, which is a general A-Z guide to creatures from different traditions and systems of mythology. Once I found things I wanted to include I took to the internet again for more research.
My research process for my second novel has been similar-ish with one major difference. The first time around there was a lot of “how to” research involving publishing, and a lot of trial and error. I’m hoping that this time around will involve a little less error!
August 21: Books to Pull You Out of a Reading Slump
We’ve all had reading slumps. Those times when you’ve read several disappointments and you’re having trouble losing yourself in something new. Here are my suggestions to help get your reading rhythm back.
1. Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman– Instead of trying to dive into another novel right away try this excellent book about books. Fadiman’s essays are short and easy to digest. It’s perfect for dipping into in small doses, and as a bonus, she might discuss a book you’ll want to tackle next.
2. Up The Down Staircase by Bel Kauffman– This book about a first-year NYC high school teacher tells its story entirely via letters characters write to one another, memos, and papers found in desk drawers or in the trash. That format makes it a very quick read. You plan to just read one note that one student passed to another, but the next thing you know you’re halfway through the book.
3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie– The plot here has been done many times: ten strangers are invited to an island where they’re killed one by one. But Agatha Christie does it better than anyone. It doesn’t take long before the reader is along for the ride, trying to figure out whodunnit as the cast of possible suspects dwindles. Once that happens it’s hard to let go!
4. No Angel by Penny Vincenzi– A 700 pager might not seem like the thing to get you out of a reading slump, but this saga of a wealthy British family is the kind of thing that just sweeps you up with it. While you read it, you’re immersed in this soap opera-ish world. There’s not a lot of intellectual depth, but who cares? It’s a fun way to break a slump!
5. Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson– This is 1930’s era chick lit that’s lighter than air. While in some ways I prefer the film because it has more emotional heft, the book is perfect for times when you want something so frothy that you can almost float along as you read.
6. Nuclear Family by Susanna Fogel– This novel consists of humorous letters sent to the main character by members of her eccentric family and friends over the course of several decades. Each letter is short and funny. It’s hard to put down when you start reading and see that the next letter is called “The Gerbil You Drowned in 1990 Would Like a Word With You”, “Your Intrauterine Device Has Some Thoughts on Your Love Life,” or “Your Uncle Figured a Mass E-mail Was the Best Way to Discuss His Sexuality.” Each one is only a page or two (the whole book is less than 200 pages) so it’s quite possible to read this in one sitting.
7. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon– This is one that just draws you in from page one and you get caught up in the atmosphere and romance and mystery. It opens with a young boy whose father is taking him to a place called The Cemetary of Forgotten Books, from that point the boy grows up and tries to discover who is destroying all the works of a favorite author. The setting of the story is so vivid that when you put it down the real world sort of comes as a surprise!
8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt– The main character of this book becomes sort of enthralled by a group of students at his college. Even though the reader has a sense that there’s something “off” about this clique we become engrossed in their concerns in the same way that the narrator does so that by the time things go off the rails, the reader is along for the ride.
9. Crush by Richard Siken– I’m not usually a poetry reader. I mean there are poems and poets that I like but I’m not one to just dive into a book of poetry for hours. But that’s why it’s perfect for a reading slump! You can dip into it for a short time, read a full poem, and put it down (or continue if you choose!) and repeat as desired. It doesn’t require the commitment of a novel. I chose this one because Siken is one of my favorite contemporary poets, but if you have another favorite go for that!
10. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery- Another way to break a slump is to revisit an old childhood favorite, whether it’s Anne or Harry Potter, or something else. There’s something that’s comforting and familiar about revisiting an old love, and as you read you can remind yourself what made you fall in love with books in the first place.
I saw this at Dwell in Possibility and couldn’t resist the combination of Netflix and books!
RECENTLY WATCHED: The last book you finished reading.
The last book I finished was The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe. It was interesting. Apparently, it was a big deal when it was released in the late 1950’s. It’s about five women who work for a Manhattan publishing company. They’re all in their early 20’s. The story follows their lives over the course of about five years, through hook-ups, break-ups, promotions, let-downs, and breakdowns. They ultimately end up in very different places from where they started. It was interesting (though horrifying) the way these women took harassment and assault from lecherous bosses as par for the course. It’s also interesting to see the various ways that the life of a single, career focused woman has changed and stayed the same over the last 60 years.
TOP PICKS: A book that has been recommended to you based on books you have previously read.
By Light We Knew Our Names by Anne Valente comes up on Goodreads based on my “read” shelf. This is the description: “From ghosts to pink dolphins to a fight club of young women who practice beneath the Alaskan aurora borealis, By Light We Knew Our Names examines the beauty and heartbreak of the world we live in. Across thirteen stories, this collection explores the thin border between magic and grief.”
RECENTLY ADDED: The last book you bought.
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters- I haven’t started it yet, but I love Sarah Waters and it got great reviews, so I’m hopeful.
POPULAR ON NETFLIX: Books that everyone knows about. (2 you’ve read and 2 you haven’t read or have no interest in reading.)
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness- I was disappointed in this. I’m not usually a fan of vampires, but it was recommended based on several books I’ve liked, it has some great reviews, and it’s the subject of a TV adaptation… But I didn’t like the characters. I didn’t care about them. I actually found both main characters to be drama queens/kings, but I didn’t want to use the same book for two posts.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie– I thought that this was an insightful, intelligent, and occasionally beautiful look at race and identity in the western world. Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love, in military-ruled Nigeria. Ifemelu has an opportunity to study in America. Obinze initially plans to join her but instead ends up and undocumented worker in London. They undergo very different experiences before reuniting in a newly democratic Nigeria.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante– I was really excited to read this because I’d heard wonderful things about it. I stopped about halfway through because it just felt like words on a page. Nothing was having any impact on my thoughts or feelings. It’s rare for me to stop reading something in the middle, and I was surprised that I had that reaction to such a popular book.
Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan– I’ve enjoyed Egan’s past work (The Keep, A Visit From the Goon Squad) and this has gotten a lot of acclaims, so I’ll probably get to it at some point. But for some reason, the description of this novel set on the WWII Brooklyn docks doesn’t grab me.
COMEDIES: A funny book.
DRAMAS: A character who is a drama queen/king.
The Wise Woman by Phillippa Gregory– Alys is an orphan who joins a convent mostly to escape her foster mother. When Henry VIII’s men burn the convent, Alys escapes but is haunted by the dying screams of the other nuns. She ends up working in a castle as a scribe, and she falls obsessively in love with the lord’s son. But he’s already married, so she plots to take over as the lady of the manor in any way she can. Granted her life is pretty dramatic from the start, but Alys embraces the drama and delights in it. I don’t really recommend this book, but it certainly features a drama queen!
ANIMATED: A book with cartoons on the cover.
Since this book is a parody of the Gothic Romance genre, it sort of makes sense that the cover illustration would be cartoons. Several characters are rather cartoons send-ups of a “type”.
WATCH IT AGAIN: A book or series that you want to re-read.
The Quincunx by Charles Palliser- I loved this neo-Victorian mystery/romance/saga. It had a very complex plot though and I only recall the broad outlines of what happened. I’d like to reread it and refresh my memory.
DOCUMENTARIES: A non-fiction book you’d recommend to everyone.
I’m always hesitant to recommend a book to “everyone” because for me at least, book recommendations are personal. That said, I did recently recommend Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi on this blog, so I’ll repeat that.
ACTION AND ADVENTURE: An action packed book.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters- This book can fall into several different genres, but the sheer amount and nature of the twists and turns that it took certainly made it feel action packed! The second half of the novel had one “WTF!” revelation after another.
NEW RELEASES: A book that just came out or will be coming out soon that you can’t wait to read.
As always, there are a number of books that I’m excited to read ASAP, but The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock comes to mind first. I’m trying to moderate my expectations because I’ve been disappointed before, but this combination of historical fiction and magical realism seems to be just my kind of weird.
For That Artsy Reader Girl’s Top Ten Tuesday
March 6: Favorite Book Quotes
I don’t know if this list is 100% accurate. But these were the top ten that I thought of.
1. “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Because some things are just so true.
2. “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.” —From Peter Pan by JM Barrie
I think this applies to a lot more than just flying. It’s really about taking risks. If we stop and think about all the things that could go wrong, we’d never do anything. Sometimes you have to just put all that out of your mind, and take a (metaphorical) leap.
3“…. my mother gave me a brown paper bag which I filled with caught butterflies so that by the time we were ready to go and the sun was ready to set in that Florentine filmy amber it gets down there at about 6 in the summer, I had caught a lot.
I’d wait until the car was all paced and we were just driving off and then I’d open the window, tear the bag quickly and watch the silent explosion of color fly out. “I’ll always remember this,” I thought, “forever.”
Then we’d go home and eat dinner I suppose, I don’t really remember.”
I just read this book recently, and I marked this passage because it really stood out to me. I think that the language shows just how vivid the memory of the butterflies is, compared to whatever happened afterward. It’s how I often remember childhood. Certain memories are very clear, and others just fade away.
4. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.”
5. “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?” – From Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
I think that ultimately this speaks to how privilege matters and how little it really means. One person may be regarded as better or “more” than another, and that brings real advantages. But ultimately, we’re all just feeling our way around the world. We all have limited understanding, and we all want something more.