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Reading that Shaped Me

My friend, Sara Backer tagged me with the ten-book meme. The list is the books that "stayed with me." I compiled the books without really thinking about how they "provided insight about societal injustice as well as compelling characters."  This is the list I came up with:

1. My Father’s Dragon, by Ruth Stiles Gannett.  I could have picked several other little kid’s books, but I think this one warped me best. A clever protagonist, a plucky baby dragon, and a lot of scary animals.
2. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury. MANY people might put this one on their list. Beautiful language in the service of imaginative, thought-provoking, emotional stories. Bradbury was my introduction to short fiction (although I read “The Pit and the Pendulum” even earlier).
3. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein. Heinlein’s juveniles were the entry-level drug to his important, adult novels like this one.
4. Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit), by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I lost a week of college classes because someone left a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring on a table in the student union. Poetic language and epic storytelling.
5. Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock.  This one the World Fantasy Award in 1988, so one of those rare books that made the list from after I was 22.  James Michener once said that you should read as many of the great books as you can before you are 22, which I have just taken to mean that you are most influenceable when you are young.
6. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. I think I made three or four false starts on this book that at first I thought was just profound philosophical meanderings before I discovered that it’s also a darned good novel about a father’s relationship with his son.
7. Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis. I didn’t know it was also religious allegory! I just thought it was great world building that shook my view of humanity.
8. Goodbye Mr. Chips, by James Hilton. I read this my first year of teaching, at the back of a class that was doing silent reading.  I wept.
9. Lincoln’s Dreams, by Connie Willis.  Willis is a world treasure.  She’s funny when writing comedy, and tragic when she needs to be.  Her work is the best melding of speculative thinking, solid background research, and the human condition that I’ve ever read.  I could have picked a half-dozen other titles from her.  She’s awesome.
10. I can’t name a tenth book because there are twenty more titles that should be in my top ten.  How can I get this far without having mentioned Edgar Rice Burroughs, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King, David Brin, Kim Stanley Robinson, George R.R. Martin, Zenna Henderson, or James Patrick Kelly?  I know that I’ll keep revising this post by adding other names.
11. Yes, I’m an English teacher, and I love to teach Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, A Man for All Seasons, Death of a Salesman, Hamlet, and the many other classics that are a part of the English canon, but they aren’t the books that shaped me.  They’re influential, but I read them too late.  My early reading pretwisted me.

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Upcoming Appearances

My October is busy!

Friday/Saturday, Oct. 11/12.  Language of the Fantastic Festival sponsored by the Western Colorado Writers Forum.  I will be doing a reading at 7:30 on Friday night, and a three-hour workshop on plot Saturday morning.  From 6:00 to 7:00 on Friday is a meet-the-writers social at 800 Colorado.  Multi-talented science fiction and fantasy writer, Daniel Abraham will be in attendance.  The reading starts at 7:30.

Saturday's workshop on plotting is in the CMU Student Center from 8:30 to 11:30.  We'll spend three hours talking about and working on plotting.

Thursday, Oct. 17th, 7:00 p.m., reading at Planet Earth Gallery.

Friday/Saturday/Sunday, Oct. 18th-20th.  MileHiCon in Denver.

Find the Writers You Like

And study them!

I'm reading Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn now.  It's a book that I'd heard quite a bit about, but I never got around to reading.

Lucky for me, because now I get to read it for the first time.  It's kind of a fable, for those of you who don't know, about the last unicorn searching for others of her kind.  It has a heroic prince, and a bumbling wizard, and an evil king, and a truly frightening monster (plus plenty of curses and spells and castle stuff that makes my heart go squee).

But there are two features about it that I really, really like.  First, the book reads to me as if Beagle decided to absolutely, as often as possible, bend similes and metaphors to the breaking point.  There's hardly a paragraph that doesn't offer up a startling bit of figurative language, like this bit:

unicornThe unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone.  She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was not longer the careless color of sea foam, but rather the color of snow falling on a moon lit night.  But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.

Isn't that cool?  It's poetic, but I'm hard pressed to tell you exactly what I see in it.  What is a "lilac wood," for example?  I know what a lilac is, but it's a bush, not a tree.  Is it a forest that has a lot of lilac?  And then, what is the difference between the color of sea foam (which I have seen), and snow falling on a moon lit night (which I haven't seen, but I can imagine)?  How does a shadow move on the sea?

The point isn't that the description strains my ability to see it; it's more that the description is evocative.  It's spoken as if there is a significant difference between sea foam and moon light on snow, and that I should know it.  And for the moment of the sentence, I DO know it.  At least I feel I do.

I'd heard once that a writer should use similes and metaphors sparingly, since they can compete with each other for attention.  If Beagle heard that advice, he must have thought, "Screw that, I'm going the other direction!"

So I like this book because the language is consistently interesting and entertaining.

The other reason I like it surprises me.  The language drew me in and kept me going, but now that I'm 61% done (thank you Kindle for keeping track), I find that I'm emotionally attached to the characters.  Prince Lir's tragic love is heartbreaking (and, frankly, he started as a ridiculous person), just as the unicorn's quest has me scared for what will happen next, and Schmendrick, the bungling wizard, unexpectedly developed depth and pathos.

I'm delighted that I found this book because it's both fun to read, and I like what Beagle does with the writing.  I'm learning more about the possibilities of prose through reading him.

The advice is simple: find the writers you like, and then pay attention to how they do what they do.  Maybe you'll become more of the writer you want to be by doing this.

Jun. 16th, 2013

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is the best book I've read this summer. I'm always on the lookout for a solidly plotted, well-written story, and Leviathan Wakes filled the bill. The authors (James S.A. Corey is a pen name for a writing duo) did a great job involving me in the mystery and the characters. I very much enjoyed the philosophical conflict between Miller and Holden, two men who have contradictory world views but who have to work together to save their lives (and the universe as they know it).

Also, the story has an interesting horror undertone, which I don't see often in science fiction.

I highly recommend it. The Kindle edition includes Daniel Abraham's The Dragon's Path, and that has been enjoyable so far also.



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Drop Everything

booksHi, all.  Did you know that today is national Drop Everything and Read Day?

If only.

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A World of Tiny I Wants

After bagels this morning, Tammy and I cruised to Barnes & Noble for our bimonthly visit, and as I wandered, a series of "I wants" struck me.  They all deal with how I spend my time.

  • castle doorWhile looking at the boxed "Learn to Play Your Harmonica" sets, I thought about how I've always longed to master the mouth harp--not in a cowboy-around-the-campfire way, but in a nobody-knows-the-blues-like-me, Neil Young, John Mayall way.  I actually own several harmonicas that I've bought whenever this particular "I want" has struck me.

  • Lately I've been thinking about sketching.  I like fantasy landscapes and architecture, so sketch books, how-to sketch instructions, and art pencil/pen sets have been catching my eyes.  Right now I picture a sketchbook filled with studies of castle doors and windows.

  • I found myself holding a fat biography of Winston Churchill.  I wish I read more biography.  Besides Winston Churchill, I suddenly wanted to know more about Robert Kennedy, Sylvia Plath and Ernest Hemingway.  If I only had the time.

  • My list of rereads is growing too.  Today I almost bought a new copy of Dune.


I only have three days of spring break left.  I don't think I can get everything done!

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Bronte Power!

Sometimes after bagels I will head to Barnes & Noble for leisurely browsing.  Often times we don't buy anything, but today I came home with  the Donald Maass title, Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. Too many writers at the Rain Forest Writers' Village talked about it for me not to pick it up.

Mostly I wander, lusting after leather-bound notebooks, thumbing through the latest Pearls Before Swine title, checking the new releases, and noting whatever catches my interest.  Normally this is a two-hour trip or so.

hodderHere's a couple observations from today:  First, I really like Mark Hodder's covers.  The front image is cool, but the back of the paperbacks have a pure steampunk aesthetic to them that hit my literary buttons.  I think I have a steampunkish sensibility much of the time.  I like the clothes.  I like the looks of the machinery.  Mostly I like the optimistic, the-future-is-ours attitude of the imaginary time period.  Oh, and I've always wanted a Victorian gentleman's study with a deep leather chair, a Tiffany reading lamp, a heavy desk with secret drawers, and floor to ceiling book shelves filled with rare editions (and one of the book shelves has to also be a hidden door to an inner sanctum).  Hodder's covers look like how I feel about steampunk.

I noticed John Ringo has a book out entitled Live Free or Die, which made me chuckle.  When I talk to kids about the power of wording, I'll often cite Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death," as a nicely worded sentence.  I tell them we probably wouldn't remember it if he had said, "Set me free or kill me."  "Live Free or Die" made me think of the less elegantly worded alternative, although that may be a perfect title for the book.

By the way, have any of you noticed in Barnes & Noble the thirty feet of test-help guides?  My lord, ACT, GRE, SAT, AP, etc. guides by the yard.  There's a tremendous publishing industry resting on the backs of our testing culture.  The test certainly has become the thing.  The knowledge the tests are supposed to test is pushed to the background.  The books are all about strategies for maximizing the students' scores.  I remember one of my high school teachers telling me that there was no way to prepare for the ACT or any other test like that.  "The test measures a lifetime of learning, son," he said.

While cruising the stacks, I realized I've never read any of George R.R. Martin's Wildcard books.  Look at the authors who have contributed!

The new title I noticed that I want to investigate is Robert Jackson Bennett's American Elsewhere.  It looked intriguing.

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Tolkien Snippit De Jour

Rereading Lord of the Rings for the manyth time is a different experience than the first couple of times through, when it was all plot (I had a tendency to skip the poems too).  Now I'm much more leisurely, and I have a chance to luxuriate in passages like this one from The Two Towers:

“And, Legolas, when the torches are kindled and men walk on the sandy floors under the echoing domes, ah! Then, Legolas, gems and crystals and veins of precious ore glint in the polished walls; and the light glows through folded marbles, shell-like, translucent as the living hands of Queen Galadriel. There are columns of white and saffron and dawn-rose, Legolas, fluted and twisted into dreamlike forms; they spring up from many-coloured floors to meet the glistening pendants of the roof: wings, ropes, curtains fine as frozen clouds; spears, banners, pinnacles of suspended palaces! Still lakes mirror them: a glimmering world looks up from dark pools covered with clear glass; cities, such as the mind of Durin could scarce have imagined in his sleep, stretch on through avenues and pillared courts, on into the dark recesses where no light can come, And plink! A silver drop falls, and the round wrinkles in the glass make all the towers bend and waver like weeds and corals in a grotto of the sea. Then evening comes:” they fade and twinkle out; the torches pass on into another chamber and another dream. There is chamber after chamber, Legolas; hall opening out of hall, dome after dome, stair beyond stair; and still the winding paths lead on into the mountains’ heart. Caves! The Caverns of Helm’s Deep! Happy was the chance that drove me there! It makes me weep to leave them.”

Sometimes I talk to young writer-wannabes who have no answer when I ask them what they like to read.  I don't know what to do with someone who wants to write but doesn't read.  Eventually, on some profound level, you have to love the written word to want to create it.

One Paragraph Could Inspire a Career

bombadilA handful of books in my bookshelf are in my "reread rotation."  It's a short list: The Martian Chronicles, Mythago Wood, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Lord of the Rings.  Rereading a book is like listening to a piece of music multiple times: unperceived levels reveal themselves.  So, while rereading The Fellowship of the Ring today, I noticed this paragraph: Frodo and the hobbits have found refuge with Tom Bombadil.  He's telling them stories about Old Man Willow, when he switches gears:
 
  • Suddenly Tom’s talk left the woods and went leaping up the young stream, over bubbling waterfalls, over pebbles and worn rocks, and among small flowers in close grass and wet crannies, wandering at last up on to the Downs. They heard of the Great Barrows, and the green mounds, and the stone-rings upon the hills and in the hollows among the hills. Sheep were bleating in flocks. Green walls and white walls rose. There were fortresses on the heights. Kings of little kingdoms fought together, and the young Sun shone like fire on the red metal of their new and greedy swords. There was victory and defeat; and towers fell, fortresses were burned, and flames went up into the sky. Gold was piled on the biers of dead kings and queens; and mounds covered them, and the stone doors were shut; and the grass grew over all. Sheep walked for a while biting grass, but soon the hills were empty again. A shadow came out of dark places far away, and the bones were stirred in the mounds. Barrow-wights walked in hollow places with a clink of rings on cold fingers, and gold chains in the wind. Stone rings grinned out of the ground like broken teeth in the moonlight.
This is a beautiful paragraph!  I hear a brief resonance with Carl Sandburg's "Grass."  But I also realized that there are a gazillion stories encompassed in this paragraph.  You could spend an entire career as a fantasy writer fulfilling the implications of this paragraph, writing the stories Tolkien suggests.

A while ago someone put together an anthology of "mini-epics."  The idea was to write a short story that had the feel of a three-book, fat-fantasy epic, but stayed in the short story range.  I liked the idea of the book quite a bit.  Tolkien wrote the template for the mini-epic in this paragraph.

Wow!

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