Friday, October 17, 2014


Picture Day Friday: Bali, Indonesia


Bali is famous for its beaches and its temples. Here's a picture of ancient ruins of a temple that is still in use as a holy site.



][Image copyrighted by www.capreform.eu.]


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


2014 TBR Reading Challenge: The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan


As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my comments on The Titan's Curse by Rick Riordan.

I freely admit: I would not have read this book unless at the insistent urging of my daughter. I do not read middle-grade books. However, she persistently, and creatively, advocated the merits of the book, and I was convinced to give it a go. I warned her that if I found it boring, I would drop it. She accepted that with grace. But from the get go, I was hooked. The story and characters were engaging and the plot moved at a cracking pace.

The Titan's Curse is book three of the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series. Percy Jackson is a half-blood, i.e., the son of the Greek sea god Poseidon and a mortal woman from NYC. During the school year, he resides with his mother, but during the summers, he lives at Camp Half Blood, which is a camp for the sons and daughters of gods and goddesses as well as satyrs (half man, half goat), centaurs (half man, half horse), pegasi (flying horses), nereids (sea nymphs), dryads (tree nymphs), hippocampi (fish ponies), and other such magical beings.

This series leads into the Greek wars between the ancient Titan lords and the later Olympian gods. The cruel Titan Kronos had been destroyed before the story begins and his pieces had been cast into Tartarus, the underworld. However, evil monsters were trying to knit him together so that he could rise again. All the half-bloods' quests in this series play a role in attempting to prevent this from taking place.

In this story, Chiron, the centaur, and Dionysus, god of wine and revelry, rule over Camp Half Blood. Annabeth (Athena's daughter), Thalia (Zeus's daughter), Grover (the satyr), Zoë Nightshade (lieutenant of Artemis's hunters), and Bianca and Nico di Angelo are the cast of heroes supporting Percy in his quest to save the goddess Artemis (and Annabeth who gets captured during the quest). Zoë's, Bianca's, and Nico's parents play a part in the surprising twists and turns of the story.

Grover sends Percy, Thalia, and Annabeth a message about locating two very powerful half-bloods with unknown parentage. While they go off to rescue Bianca and Nico, they meet up with a spike-throwing manticore monster and Annabeth gets captured. The other heroes are rescued from the monster by Artemis and her immortal hunters, including Zoë. Artemis accepts Bianca into her band of hunters and grants her eternal youth. There's a fun and hair-raising ride for the heroes back to the camp with the bad haiku-spouting (heh!) Apollo in his red-hot Maserati sun-chariot.

In the meantime, Artemis heads off on her own to capture one of the most terrible monsters who's stirring back to life—monsters don't die, they simply lie dormant when defeated in battle till it is time to rise again. Unfortunately, Artemis gets captured, hence the heroes are back on a quest to rescue Artemis and Annabeth. Of course, the previous half-blood turned traitor, Luke, is involved in this up to his nasty ears.

Beyond this, I cannot say, because in the telling, I'd be revealing spoilers that'll destroy the whole story. Surprises are revealed at every plot turn, and it is impossible to narrate the rest of the story without knowing the spoiler.

I loved the story. I loved the writing: fresh, fast, complex (plotting details and characterization), age-appropriate and yet great reading for adults, too.


Friday, October 10, 2014


Picture Day Friday: Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet


Potala Palace, in the capital city of Lhasa, Tibet, is the home of the Dalai Lamas of Tibetan Buddhism. Here are views of the palace in different seasons.






Tuesday, October 7, 2014


A Perspective on the Masters of Fine Arts Programs


I was at the library picking up an interlibrary loan book that was on hold for me, when naturally, I couldn't resist perusing the new books shelf. Lo and behold, I came across a book that compares the literary cultures of the Masters of Fine Arts university degree and the literary fiction trade publishing houses of Manhattan, New York City. I had to pick it up and bring it home: MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach.

And as serendipity has its way, when I arrived home, I ran across an article in the New York Times asking: Can Writing Be Taught? The authors of the article were Zoë Heller, whose book Notes on a Scandal was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Rivka Galchen, a recipient of a William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction.

My comments here are restricted to the NYT article, the introduction to the book, and some of the essays in the book: "MFA vs NYC" by Chad Harbach, "A Mini-Manifesto" by George Saunders, "The Fictional Future" by David Foster Wallace, "Money (2014)" by Keith Gessen, "People Wear Khakis" by Lorin Stein with Astri von Arbin Ahlander, "How To Be Popular" by Melissa Flashman, "The Disappointment Business" by Jim Rutman, and "Basket Weaving 101" by Maria Adelmann.

The "MFA" part of the title of the book refers to the rapid flourishing of creative writing programs offered by universities, leading to lucrative academic careers for writers and other graduates of the MFA program that rival, and far often exceed, publishing earnings. The "NYC" part of the title refers to Manhattan's trade publishing industry.

I talk here about the MFA program and its pros and cons as presented by the essays.

As is quickly established, the editor Chad Harbach's antipathy towards academe is illustrated with choice words, such as: A system with problematic elements "in their very American way of charging large numbers of students large sums to pursue a dream achieved by a few, economically." This is echoed in the NYT article: "An M.F.A. is not a passport to becoming a great novelist, or even a published one," says Zoë Heller. "The former depends on something numinous called talent; the latter has to do with the exigencies of the marketplace."

Harbach claims that MFA programs are not rigorous; in fact, they're easy and laissez-faire. This is echoed in Mary Adelmann's description of her experience with the program. While she worked and reworked many drafts of her stories, they were written with workshopping them with her peers in sight, not publishing or the reading public at large and not even art for arts' sake. And the sheer quantity of output for a two-year program was low.

People debate whether creative writing can be taught. Both Heller and Galchen believe that there are certain rules and techniques to writing in the English language that can certainly be taught. But I ask the question: Can creativity be taught? Should it be taught? To some critics, the workshop method of MFA learning is the kiss of death to creativity. The grading of assignments and workshop method of peer-critique-based writing lends itself to a certain converging-to-a-mean type of storywriting. To others, the MFA reading and writing assignments are a way to learn and absorb from the greats who have come before. Yet, does this teach creativity?

"The question of why it is, when thinking about writing, we are disproportionately detained by the question of teachability," asks Rivka Galchen. "Is it just that it's somehow flattering to feel one's endeavor is more gift than labor, and are writers more in need of such flattery than others?"

According to David Foster Wallace, the MFA program attracts certain types of students: ones who "(1) Determine what the instructor wants; and (2) Supply it forthwith." Those students who choose to deviate from the norm are either expelled or face opprobrium from the faculty. However, those who "the minute fanny touches chair, make the instructors' dicta their own" are encouraged with financial inducements and teacher approval. "They begin producing solid, quiet work, most of which lands neatly in Dreary Camp #3, nice cautious, boring Workshop Stories, stories as tough to find technical fault with as they are to remember after putting them down."

George Saunders, an MFA professor, writes a defensive piece in support of MFA programs. He claims that the homogenization that happens in an MFA program is not different from societal and cultural homogenization that happens daily. This is disingenuous at best. The forces at play in society are far more varied and far more numerous. The microcosm that is the MFA has few variables at play and very few people in charge. This top-down approach will, by definition, have a flattening effect on the peaks of creativity of a sizeable class of students.

This is borne out by Keith Gessen's essay on how he interacts with his students. Before I get to that, I found his lack of teaching knowledge, his indifference to learning basic teaching techniques, and the lackadaisical way he approached his preparation for class to be playing into the criticism of the MFA programs. In his interaction with students, one predominant theme was his disappointment with the students if their answers to his questions didn't match his expectations. If what they wrote was not to his taste, he was unable to see the merit in them. "I had read their first exercises and they were not for me. They were obscure; rather than less self-involved than traditional first-person writing, they were more self-involved. I should have said [to them]: 'You are not ready to do this sort of work.'"

(An aside: I found this statement by Saunders troublesome in its defiance: "If someone wants to go to a CW program, then goes [sic] to a CW program and [if] it sucks, she probably won't die from it.")

So why are MFA programs so popular? Harbach believes it is a way for students to feel that they're doing some positive towards their writing career and that it is an easy degree. Writer-teachers, themselves graduates of MFA programs, are drawn towards teaching, because it provides a lucrative steady income in salary, guest lectureship, paid talks, etc., in addition, tenure provides job security, all of which publishing books through NYC cannot guarantee. So the MFA program is a circular system: generating writers who in turn return to teach more writers.

What the writers in the programs are learning are to write short stories. Short stories are workshopable, if you will; novels aren't. Many of the top-notch stories go on to be published in university literary magazines and periodicals; some may be published in literary magazines of NYC, however, that number is small. Stories in university publications are assigned for reading in that university's MFA program as well as in a reciprocal arrangement with other MFA programs. As a result, rising popularity of certain short stories can lead to their canonization, which is a proud accolade to have.

So despite the cons, the pros seem to outweigh the balance in favor of the flourishing of MFA programs.


Friday, October 3, 2014


Picture Day Friday: Idealized Children's Library



Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Big Fat Book September Update


I do have progress to report on my Big Fat Book Project this month as opposed to last month. I have now finished 9 of 21 CDs of The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett. This means I've crossed 200 pages in the paper copy. This is my story of how I came to do a Big Fat Book Project.

For the record, I'm listening to the audiobook and also reading the paper copy, er, not simultaneously.

I was hooked to the story from the very third track of the first CD. The first track was an introduction by Dunnett, while the second was a daunting list of characters that went on and on, and I promptly forgot the one when he stated who the next was. This is where having a paper copy of the book was immensely helpful. Whenever I ran into "now who the heck is this?," I could quickly leaf to the relevant pages and glance over the list.

Another advantage of the paper copy was the ability to consult the map at the front of the book whenever a place name cropped up. Now how could he see the smoke plumes of Midculture from the battlements of Boghall? Ah, yes, of course.

I had assumed that my attention would wander as I listened to the audio—and it did, as in I wasn't one hundred percent focused at all times—but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I had retained of the story. Every few days, I caught up on my listening in my paper copy. I had retained not just the gist of the plot but also the nuances of some of the characterizations.

The reader, or rather performer, Samuel Gillies gets the credit for retaining my interest and for the depth of my retention. He has a good speaking voice with clear diction and no verbal conversational tics. He does male characters really well with enough variation in tone, inflection, and pronunciation to distinguish between them. His medieval English accent was superb as was his Scottish accent, but luckily, he did them sparingly. At first, I was afraid that since there are a plethora of Scottish characters, Gillies would read the entire book that way, but thankfully, he didn't. My quibble was with his French accent, which was execrable. I'm not qualified to comment on his German, Spanish, Italian, or Latin accents, or other languages I did not recognize.

One downside to this book (audio and paper) is that there're not an insignificant number of small sections in languages other than the Queen's English. And there are no translations whatsoever. Other than the French, I understood nothing. It irked me to have to skip over the passages, because, you know, like, I might be missing something important there.

What is lost in the audio listening are references to things I don't know about. For example, I didn't know that the word Erasmian referred to the pre-Protestant and Humanist ideas propounded by Catholic priest Erasmus of Rotterdam in the 16th century. Another example was the word mouldiewarps, which is an archaic word for a mole. I heard these and many others like these as foreign words, which were therefore incomprehensible. However, when they came up in the paper copy, I looked them up, and now I know, and my reading of those scenes is richer for that knowledge. Yes, I admit that it was a trifle wearing to sit with a dictionary at my elbow.

The scenes that feature Lymond are the ones with a plethora of foreign phrases, quotations, and uncommon words and references. Those also happen to be integral to the story so the urge to understand is urgent.

A con of choosing to do the audio and the paper is that I'm proceeding at a much slower pace than had I done one or the other. I have to play catch-up sometimes in one medium and so halt the progress in the other. I wouldn't say I'm half as slow, but definitely significantly slower.

I owe Kaetrin another word of thanks for her suggestion to exercise while listening. My attention wandered far less than it otherwise would have if I had not been physically doing something mindless while listening to the reading. I also found, thankfully, that when something interesting was going on, I was exercising longer. Win!

For the story itself, you have to start with its central scapegrace of a character. Francis Crawford of Lymond, Master of Culter, is articulate, literate, treasonous, treacherous, with a viper's tongue and elastic morals, utterly self-involved, full of ennui and grace, poetically insouciant, beautiful, and a murdering thief.

The gist of the book is that Scotland is still free in 1547, but has already suffered a crashing defeat at the hands of the English. The English want to marry their boy King Edward VI to Scotland's toddler Mary, Queen of Scots, thereby finally uniting both countries under the English crown. So far, they've been unsuccessful in carrying her off. So war brews and rumbles along the Scottish Borders. Scotland's future rests in the hands of the anti-hero Lymond. (This has got to be one heck of a character arc for Lymond. My imagination fails me in picturing Lymond's transformation from anti-hero to hero. So I remain agog to see how Dunnett is going to pull it off.)


Friday, September 26, 2014


Picture Day Friday: Ancient Egyptian House in Cornwall, England


Would you like to stay in an ancient, ornate Egyptian house in the Penzance region of Cornwall, England? If so, you can book one of three apartments through Landmark Trust. (Don't look for historical accuracy; it's high on fun, less so on history.)

[Click to see a bigger, better picture.]


Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Books I'm Reading and Planning To Read


I started out 2014 with a quest to read more non-romance books, more nonfiction books, and more books by male authors. I have succeeded on all three fronts, but you have to understand the bar was very low to begin with.

In 2013, I read 12% non-romance books, 6% non-fiction books, and 7% books by male authors out of a total of 109 books. While this year isn't over yet (and I'm trying to cram in as many as I can before December 31), my numbers are certainly up. I have read 28% non-romance books, 12% non-fiction books, and 14% books by male authors out of a total of 74 books.

While my overall number of books is down, I'm quite OK with that. I've grown and stretched as a reader and that counts for much more than a mere number of books read.

The books remaining to be read this year are:

  • The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (categories: historical fiction, big fat book, audiobook)
  • Stradivari's Genius by Toby Faber (categories: nonfiction, male author)
  • Connecting Parenting: Parenting through Connection instead of Coercion, Through Love instead of Fear by Pam Leo (categories: nonfiction, parenting)

    I like to plan some of my reading year. I maintain a list-by-month of new releases of authors I especially delight in. Then I have a list of books I'd like to read—this includes off the TBR bookcase, recommended books, and "shoulds."

    These are some of the books I plan to read in 2015:
  • The secret History by Donna Tartt (categories: literary fiction, big fat book, audiobook)
  • Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (categories: literary fiction, male author)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (categories: literary fiction, male author)
  • The Paris Wife by Paula McLain (categories: literary fiction)
  • The Bookman's Tale by Charles Lovett (categories: literary fiction)
  • Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson (categories: literary fiction)
  • Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin (categories: literary fiction)
  • Staying On by Paul Scott (categories: literary fiction)
  • Walt Whitman edited by Jonathan Levin (categories: poetry, male author, TBR)

  • The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan (categories: children's, male author)
  • The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan (categories: children's, male author)
  • Alchemyst by Michael Scott (categories: children's, male author)
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (categories: spirituality, children's fiction, rec by Liz_Mc2 sonomalass willaful Olivia Waite)

  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabet Gilbert (categories: nonfiction, memoir, TBR)
  • Measure of a Man by Sidney Poitier (categories: nonfiction, memoir, male author, TBR)
  • I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai (categories: nonfiction, memoir, TBR)
  • Time to be in Earnest by PD James (categories: nonfiction, memoir, TBR)
  • Making Masterpiece by Rebecca Eaton (on Masterpiece Theater) (categories: nonfiction, memoir, rec by Mary Jo Putney)
  • The Favored Daughter: One Woman's Fight To lead Afghanistan Into the Future by Fawzia Koofi (categories: nonfiction, memoir)
  • This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett (categories: nonfiction, memoir, rec by @Liz_Mc2)

  • The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (categories: nonfiction, spiritual)
  • You Are Michelangelo...And You Are David by Shahana Dattagupta (categories: nonfiction, spiritual, TBR)
  • The Open Road by Pico Iyer (on the Dalai Lama) (categories: nonfiction, spirituality)
  • Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen by Shunryu Suzuki (categories: nonfiction, spirituality)
  • Restful Sleep: The Complete Mind/Body Program for Overcoming Insomnia by Deepak Chopra (categories: nonfiction, spirituality)

  • Bringing up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman (categories: nonfiction, parenting, TBR)
  • How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough (categories: nonfiction, parenting, rec by Bill Gates)

  • The Now Habit by Neil Fiore (categories: nonfiction, organization, male author, TBR)
  • Talking About Detective Fiction by PD James (categories: nonfiction, TBR)
  • Finding Forgotten Cities by Nayanjot Lahiri (categories: nonfiction, TBR)


  • Friday, September 19, 2014


    Picture Day Friday: The Old Library, Trinity College, Dublin



    Wednesday, September 17, 2014


    2014 TBR Reading Challenge: From Bath With Love by Bob Croxford


    As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my brief comments on From Bath With Love by bob Croxford.

    I picked up this book at The Beau Monde conference silent auction in July 2010. The conference was held in conjunction with the annual conference of the Romance Writers of America. The book subsequently languished on my to-be-read pile for years, until I rescued it from obscurity in July for consultation for my blog for the Risky Regencies on the beauties and histories of Bath. Having enjoyed reading it, I thought it would be perfect for my September TBR Reading Challenge post.

    Bob Croxford makes Bath in Somerset, England come alive though his gorgeous photography. He captures the highlights of the features of Bath and includes funny, poignant, and very relevant quotes from people in history who traveled to Bath and enjoyed the experience. The oldest of the quotes is by Tacitus from 80 CE and the newest is by Christopher Lee in 1995. Luminaries included are R.L. Stevenson, Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Samuel Johnson, William Herschel, Christopher Anstey, Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, and many others.

    The book is organized with one large picture on one of the pages and a small picture and 2–3 quotes on the facing page. The order of items included can be taken as a visitors' guidebook.

    His opening salvo is of the eye-catching Royal Crescent of buildings that is the iconic image of Bath. He encourages a visit to the Number One townhouse to see a typical 18th century home. A visit to the Lansdown Crescent and The Circus crescent is also recommended.

    He then features pictures of the Roman Baths, the reason why visitors have poured into the city for seventeen hundred years. The hot bubbling sulfurous mineral waters were said to cure various ailments of all those who bathed in it and drank it. The baths are followed by a visit to the Grand Pump Room (now restaurant) and then the Bath Abbey. A stop for Bath buns at Sally Lunn's House is suggest as a good idea; you can also see a Victorian post box there. To quench your thirst, he recommends a visit to The Roundhouse.

    Relax the afternoon away in the Jubilee Gardens or the Victoria Gardens, and visit the theater in the evening at the New Theater Royal. While the Pulteney Bridge doesn't have quite the same cachet as Paris's Pont Neuf, do spend your late summer evening browsing around and sighing over the Pulteney.

    In addition to all the architecture marvels, he includes a small series of photographs on what he called Floral Bath. These are pictures of window boxes, hanging baskets, and upright pots displaying a riot of colors of flowers of all shapes and sizes and types.


    Tuesday, September 16, 2014


    Commentary: The Songbird's Seduction by Connie Brockway


    I'm a huge fan of Connie Brockway's books. I have her entire backlist and eagerly await her newest releases. So imagine my surprise and pleasure when the mail brought me an advance review copy of The Songbird's Seduction sent to me by Connie herself. Not only was I able to read a new book by her, but I had the cachet of being an early reader. The cockles of my heart were thrilled. Ahem.

    So I had high expectations riding into the book, and this always makes me apprehensive. What if the book doesn't live up to the pedestal I've placed it upon?

    Luckily, for me, The Songbird's Seduction delivered. It delivered on the story, on the historical period of the Downton Abbey Edwardian era, on the characters, and on Connie Brockway's signature witty repartée. Every character—be they main characters like Archie and Lucy or secondary characters like Aunt Lavinia and Margery—is drawn with care. Their complexity makes them interesting, makes them come alive.

    London operetta singer Lucy Eastlake was orphaned at an early age and bounced around from relative to relative before she was taken in by these two elderly aunts of hers. They're single ladies living in genteel but constrained circumstances. However, they gave Lucy all the advantages they could give her and all the love her short life had previously lacked. Lucy's joie de vivre confounds and befuddles her aunts, as does her signature "things will work out" attitude.

    Lucy doesn't believe in waiting for fate to hand her what she desires—she likes to reach out and grasp her opportunities tightly in her own two hands. And this runs contradictory to the story of her Aunt Lavinia's youth, where she fell in love with a young army officer in India. She felt he loved her, she knew she loved him, but he had an understanding with someone else, which he decided to honor and she respected that. So in the end, these two people who loved each other in their youths were separated forever without having revealed their love to each other, till a legacy came along fifty years later that reconnected them.

    A fortune in rubies was to be divided up among the remaining four survivors of the siege in India, but Lord John Barton, Lavinia's John, gifted his share to Lavinia. So Lucy and her great aunts Lavinia and Bernice set off for France to collect their fortune.

    There were to be aided in their endeavor by Lord Barton's grandson, Professor Ptolemy Archibald Grant, a straitlaced, brilliant cultural anthropologist. Lucy at first rejects his help, but as circumstances have it, she and he end up taking the ferry over to France together. Meanwhile, Lucy's great aunts have already departed for France under the aegis of Lucy's theater friend Margery, impersonating a theatrical woman to ease the great aunts' discomfort.

    Missed connections between the two parties, many adventures, and much hilarity ensue, giving Archie and Lucy precious time together. They fall in love, and things are progressing swimmingly until Archie makes a discovery that makes him angry with Lucy. Lucy hies off in tears to meet Lavinia's deadline for divvying up of the fortune.

    Whilst there, seeing Lavinia, she's reminded again how she could not make the same error that Lavinia made in not seizing her happiness, of letting her love leave her to live the best years of her life in regret. So Lucy reverses her earlier decision to let Archie alone and decides to try to convince him of her love. Meanwhile serendipitously, Archie's arrived at exactly the same conclusion. Love does indeed triumph all differences.

    The Songbird's Seduction is releasing today, and after writing this review, I've been reminded again why I liked this story so much, and I've succumbed to the urge to re-read it.


    Friday, September 12, 2014


    Picture Day Friday: English Country Cottage



    Friday, September 5, 2014


    Picture Day Friday: Remains of the Day Setting


    Dyrham Park, near Bath, was the setting for the Merchant Ivory film Remains of the Day.


    [Photo courtesy of Brendan May @bmay.]


    Monday, September 1, 2014


    Five Tools for World Building in Historical Fiction


    Right around the time of the Romance Writers of America's annual conference in July, I came across a two-part article on world-building for historical fiction novels by author Tim Weed for The Grub Daily.

    I read the article over and over again, thought about it a lot, tweeted about it, then thought about blogging about it, then promptly forgot about it. Then suddenly last night, when I was wondering whatever I am going to blog about tomorrow, it flashed in my inward eye (misquoting Wordsworth) and was deemed perfect for today's offering.

    I am going to very briefly summarize the article's five main points below. However, I urge you to read the article in its entirety here and here.

    Vivid Descriptions of Nature
    We instinctively recognize natural landscapes, whether or not we've spent a significant of time communing with nature and whether or not the landscape is deeply familiar or completely foreign. As a result, they always elicits deep emotional responses.

    Accurate Portrayal of Recognizable Human Emotions
    Evoke plausible and vivid emotional states for your characters that ring true to us and they will come alive for us, and through the characters, hook us into the story.

    Incorporating the Exotic
    Provide us with a vicarious experience of the unfamiliar. Make us see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, touch it, sense it.

    Defamiliarization
    Show a different way to see the same situation or person. Show something that is "familiar, even clichéd, in a compelling new light. In the process, it makes us wake up and pay attention."

    Use Period Details—But Sparingly
    Don't fall into the temptation of an infodump. All your research doesn't have to be unloaded into your story. You want to add it delicately like a strong spice in your dish. The nuances are where the beauty is, not in the actual description. "Remember: period details must make sense given what's happening in the story and the point of view character's emotional state."

    Summation
    "Vivid, concrete, specific detail is the lifeblood, the gods' nectar, of fiction."


    Friday, August 29, 2014


    Big Fat Book Update


    Well, I had hoped to report back on progress. But what I'm actually reporting is lack thereof.

    Towards the beginning of the month, I'd written about signing up to do the Big Fat Book read-a-long for the month of August. The readers were tasked with reading complex books of greater than 500 pages in length.

    I chose The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, a 543-page tome which results in 25 hours of unabridged audio recording on 21 CDs.

    I waited and waited for the books to arrive from the library. I had put holds on the books in July but it was past mid-August by the time the books arrived. I had requested the audiobook on CD as well as a paperback copy. Given that this was to be my first foray in audiobook territory, I thought to back up my listening to the book with my reading the book. I was told that there were dozens of characters in this book—in fact, track two on the first CD goes through the list for minutes on end—and so thought the reading would help me keep track of the characters better as well as the complexities of the plot.

    After the books arrived, I had to jigger a listening setup. I commandeered an ancient, barely alive laptop to be the CD player and loaded up the first CD. I installed an updated Windows Media Player, which didn't work. So I found an HP CD-playing software to run on my HP machine. That worked. Then I had to hunt around for a proper headset, one which didn't fall out of my ears or slip on the hair when that hair's sweaty from exercise. I ended up with my daughter's hot pink ones. As it is, I wasn't aiming to look chic while exercising while half asleep at six o'clock, so cushioned hot pink ear muffs were it. I then had to figure out a way to hide this whole setup from inquisitive little sticky fingers, but still accessible from the exercise bike.

    In the meantime, family had arrived for an extended visit, which involved lots of cooking and going places. I also had multiple book editing projects land on my desk. You can tell where this is going right? Right.

    By the end of the month, I have ended up listening to three hours of the book. Twenty-two more to go. I'm going to keep up the BFB project till I'm all done. However, it's not going to be a month-long project as originally envisioned by Sunita.


    Wednesday, August 27, 2014


    New RITA & Golden Heart Contest Guidelines by Romance Writers of America


    The Romance Writers of America has published their new 2015 RITA & Golden Heart contest rules for published authors and unpublished writers, respectively. Some of the highlights for the RITAs, include:

    1. Entrants are required to judge. Entrants will not judge in a category in which they are entered. Judges will be allowed to opt out of two categories.

    2. Only the first 2000 entries are accepted.

    3. A book may not be entered in more than one category, but there's is no limit to the number of eligible books that may be entered for an author in the same category.

    4. Categories with fewer than 50 entries will not be judged.
    [Given the currently defined categories, this is not something that will come to pass.]

    5. Preliminary-round scores will be determined using a trimmed mean: the highest and lowest scores will be discarded and the remaining three scores will be averaged.

    6. The top scoring 4% of each category’s entries will advance to the final round, excepting that no category will have fewer than 4 finalists or more than 10 finalists.
    [Finally, a sensible solution to this year's comical situation wherein there were 17 finalists in the Historical category.]

    7. The Contemporary category has books set from 1950 to present date and is to be subdivided thusly: short (40,000–56,000 words), mid-length (56,000–84,000 words), long (more than 84,000 words).

    8. The Historical category has books set in time periods prior to 1950 and is to be subdivided thusly: short(40,000–89,000 words) and long (more than 89,000 words).
    [While size works well to demarcate groups in the Contemporary category, time periods would work better in Historicals. There are far more books set in the extended Regency period (1800–1837) than are set in other time periods. Expecting those other books to compete with the Regencies is not feasible.]

    9. There are no New Adult or Stories with Romantic Elements categories.
    [I don't know enough about New Adult to judge—I'd put them in contemporaries—but the SwRE is a serious loss to the contest; some of Romance's best books are written in this category.]


    Friday, August 22, 2014


    Picture Day Friday: Anne Hathaway's Cottage



    Wednesday, August 20, 2014


    2014 TBR Reading Challenge: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion


    As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my comments on The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

    This is a true memoir as opposed to an autobiography of whine. Some people write their memoirs as a reporting on what happened to their lives: usually sad, humiliating, and/or disgusting. They do not enter into their own feelings about these events so much. A true memoir, on the other hand, is all about the intensely intimate, the person's feelings in reaction to or in anticipation of events. And in Joan Didion's hands, the memoir is elevated to an art form in the sparseness of her prose, her unflinching honesty in her thoughts and actions, and an in-depth examination of her feelings then and now to events preceding and succeeding The Event.

    The inciting event: "At approximately nine o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death."

    The secondary inciting event: "Our only child, Quintana, had been for the previous five night unconscious in an intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center's singer Division, [...] where what had seemed a case of December flue sufficiently severe to take her to an emergency room on Christmas morning had exploded into pneumonia and septic shock."

    Quintana, after a long illness with relapses, eventually recovered and came home. Dunne never did.

    In the days following Dunne's death, while Didion had to maintain a strong front, "I remember thinking as I did this that he would see that I was handling things," she suffered from a sense of unreality and tacit denials. "I found myself wondering [in New York City], with no sense of illogic, if it [John's death] has also happened in Los Angeles. (Was there time to go back? Could we have a different ending on Pacific time?)" and "How could he come back if they took his organs [at the autopsy], how could he come back if he had no shoes?"

    The day after the funeral in March, which was as public a declaration of death as any, she took herself in hand and allowed herself to think about what she needed to do to start the next phase of her life. "Cleaning up my office could be a step toward the first day of the rest of my life." Despite this decision, in the quotidian, her sense of reality remained fluid. "I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believe that what had happened remained reversible." Episcopalians say at the graveside: "In the midst of life we are in death," and this was so true for Didion.

    There are refrains that like ostinatos in music come up again and again throughout the narrative.
    "Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant."
    "You sit down to dinner. And then—gone."
    "You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

    Posthumously, she recognizes that there were conversations with and actions on Dunne's part that revealed that perhaps on some deep subconscious level he had some knowledge of his impending death. Gawain of the medieval prose-poem Chanson de Roland when asked, "Ah, good my lord, think you then so soon to die?" replies, "I tell you that I shall not live two days." Didion keeps discovering bits and pieces of their recent past where she should've listened closely and understood what Dunne was trying to tell her. She doesn't beat herself up about it, but it is with a sense of regret that she acknowledges her lack of attentiveness.

    Her meditation on grief is aching in its sense of catching her by surprise by its intensity and its longevity. "We do not expect to be literally crazy, [...believing] that their husband is about to return. We imagine initially that we will eventually recover, that grief will lessen. What can never be anticipated is the unending loss, the space that is always empty beside you," the unending succession of memories...

    Didion talks a lot about what she calls a "vortex effect," where a memory is triggered by a glance at a place or a song or a smell. She starts avoiding places in order to prevent disappearing down rabbit holes and the painful return to reality.

    Her husband features in these trips down memory lane far, far more than her daughter, and it's mostly when her daughter was a little girl, not other ages. This struck me as very curious. Did she feel detachment towards her daughter because she was so attached to her husband? She comes across as an unemotional person on the whole, which is not to say that she doesn't feel things intensely. On the contrary. This book goes to show that what is not apparent on the surface is very deeply felt, and it is profoundly private. This is what makes this book so powerful: In her most difficult time of grieving, she volunteers this look into her most private self to a society that considers mourning as wallowing in self-pity. That took tremendous courage.

    Towards the end of the book, she writes that she does not want to finish this account, because she's afraid that she'll then have to face up to her sense of John alive as becoming "more remote, softened, transmuted into whatever best serves" her future life without him. "I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. When we mourn our losses, we also mourn ourselves. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead."


    Monday, August 18, 2014


    Medievalism: Tales After Tolkien Society


    The Tales After Tolkien Society promotes short-form medieval scholarship in popular cultural genres, including but not limited to: fantasy, science fiction, westerns, romance, horror, crime, historical, children’s and young adult fiction, and cross-genre writing. "The Tales After Tolkien Society recognizes the foundational place J. R. R. Tolkien’s work has not only for the fantasy genre, but for popular medievalisms far more widely."

    The blog also offers brief comments on recent medievalist scholarship, book and article reviews, and other popular cultural uses of medievalist themes.

    The motivation for the blog came about from the 2011 issue of the Modern Language Association of America's publication Profession. "In it is a cluster of articles discussing the evaluation of digital scholarship, and in the introduction to that cluster is the suggestion that digital scholarship needs to be encouraged among junior scholars—those who have not yet been awarded tenure and those who find themselves off the tenure track but not secure in identities as independent scholars."

    Other advantages that digital scholarship offers are an "ability to track emergent trends in research and scholarship," a reading and an evaluation of the pieces by peers via comments and page analytics, and a space for detailed discussion of current articles.

    They are currently seeking new contributors to the blog. Please contact Helen Young for more information at talesafterolkien@gmail.com.


    Friday, August 15, 2014


    Picture Day Friday: Reply to Fan Letter by Harper Lee


    On June 7, 2006, Harper Lee wrote this extraordinary letter to her young admirer in response to a request for a photograph.

    [Click on the image to read better.]