April 2021 books read

Running teddy bear
  • The Secret World of Teddy Bears: A Rare and Privileged Glimpse into the Lives They Live When You’re Not There – Pamela Prince, 1983. A compendium of photographs of teddy bears doing various human things, accompanied by cheesy poems about them as characters. Not really worth listing except for my own future reference: I came across this in a bookstore when it was new and the photo of the jogging teddy bear stuck in my head. Years later, when I became a runner, I tried to find it again, but there are so many teddy bear books that I couldn’t ID it. About a decade ago I stumbled across it in an antiques shop in Florida, decided it was not worth what they were asking, but either didn’t record the details or lost track of them. The research was easier now – thank you Internet! I do love that the running teddy bear (Howard) has a “dog” (Rudy) who is also a teddy bear.
  • Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Use About Our Future – Peter Ward, 2007. This was on my to-read list for a long time, and the content is interesting, but alas the writing is horrible – very long, confusing sentences. I did learn about Canfield oceans, the Manicouagan crater, and an unlikely-sounding theory that people living in tropical latitudes all need drugs to get through the hot and humid days (kava, betel nut, khat, coca) – don’t all human societies have intoxicants?
  • Firefly: Legacy Edition, Book One – 2018 (compilation of the Serenity comic book #1-3). I love the TV series, and these stories are a bridge between them and the movie. I enjoyed them, especially the variety of artist takes on the characters, but it doesn’t quite scratch the itch and I didn’t rush to request the sequel.
  • Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter – Ben Goldfarb, 2018 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • Howards End – E. M. Forster, 1910 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • A Fatal Grace – Louise Penny, 2006. I’m really enjoying the Chief Inspector Gamache series so far, and this is only the second. Three Pines is delightful even though it feels quite unrealistic based on my experience of small rural towns (but maybe Quebec is different!).
  • Asimov’s Annotated Paradise Lost – text John Milton 1674, notes by Isaac Asimov 1974 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • The Number of the Beast – Robert Heinlein, 1980. Re-reading late Heinlein feels more and more like eating processed snack foods – I enjoy it enough to keep going, but I know there are better things out there I’ll like even more. This time the pull was revisiting the wish fulfillment of being able to access fictional places, especially Oz and the Lensman universe (which I only know through this book – I’ve tried a couple of times but the pulp content has proved too high for me in the raw form…)
  • Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America – Kerby Miller, 1985. Such a dense book I mostly skimmed it, but still pulled quotes so TBD.
  • The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own – Joshua Becker, 2016. OK but not memorable compared to other declutter books I’ve read. Every opportunity to re-awaken any miminalist instincts I have are welcome, though, as I incline more to maximalism (with a family tendency to hoard).
  • Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change – Maggie Smith, 2020 – The author of the amazing “Good Bones” tweeted these thoughts to herself in the aftermath of a devastating divorce. It’s somewhere between self-help and poetry, and 100% great.

I’m the literary executor for my father, Peter Caws, and I’ve been scanning and uploading his articles that weren’t already digitized. (Then I’ll go back and OCR the ones that are just image scans so there will be full text for those as well.) He was a philosopher who strove to write clearly enough that a general audience would understand his work, so I’ve been enjoying the reading as I proofread and remove the word-dividing hyphens. The two I did in April:

  • “What is Structuralism?” (Partisan Review, Vol 35 #1, 1968). I started with this one because it was requested by a researcher. “All works have constantly to be rethought if they are to be more than archaeological curiosities.” It also features an amusing caricature of four leading lights of structuralism (Foucault, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, and Barthes) by Maurice Henry.
  • “Mathematics and the Laws of Nature” (Bulletin of the Kansas Association of Teachers of Mathematics, Vol 35 No 2, 1959).

March 2021 books read

  • Dragonsinger– Anne McCaffrey, 1977 – comfort re-read, still/always holds up.
  • Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors – David George Haskell, 2017 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Swann’s Way – Marcel Proust, 1908 (Lydia Davis translation, 2003) – re-read for the Amherst College slow read group. I read it for Great Books in 2018 and still haven’t posted those quotes; new ones now!
  • Kim – Rudyard Kipling, 1901 – a very old favorite re-read but this time for Great Books, so quotes pulled, tbd
  • Esther Waters – George Moore, 1894 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • In the Days of Rain: a Daughter, a Father, a Cult – Rebecca Stott, 2017. A memoir of growing up in the Exclusive Brethren, a generation later than my own father; of interest to me for that reason, but not very compelling otherwise.
  • A Writer’s Time: Making the Time to Write – Kenneth Atchity, 1995 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing – Margot Livesey, 2017.
  • The King, the Princess, and the Tinker – Ellen Kindt McKenzie, 1992. A children’s author recommended by a co-worker friend. This wasn’t the title she mentioned, just the first one that I could get, in a genre I normally like. It was fine, nothing special, but I will try the highly recommended one when I get a chance.
  • The Word Is Murder – Anthony Horowitz, 2017. Enjoyable and I’ll go on to the sequel, which is one my stepmother recommended.
  • Just Kids – Patti Smith, 2010. I’ve heard so many good things about this and I’d been meaning to read it forever. The hype is deserved!

The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing – Margot Livesey, 2017

I no longer remember where I heard about this book, but the title grabbed me. I enjoyed it, especially the analyses of great novels, but it didn’t quite deliver on the explanation of how the machinery works. There were some useful tips – now I want to read Forster’s Aspects of the Novel for his description of flat characters who can become three-dimensional – and I’m also going to seek out Livesey’s novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which is a reworking of Jane Eyre. (Tangent: the Wikipedia article on Aspects of the Novel has two great quotes, one from Maughm – “I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr. E.M. Forster” – and one from Woolf – “So then we are back in the old bog; nobody knows anything about the laws of fiction.”)

A few bits I took away:

  • Livesey says memorable characters need attributes that convey their attitude: “No amount of details—eyes, teeth, hair, jobs, dreams, relationship to mother, history of dog ownership, horoscope—will avail unless it conveys attitude. Indeed, long lists of detail without affect may simply make the task of imagining the character harder, for both writer and reader.” This sounds plausible but I want to chew on it a bit.
  • “Dialogue is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—often pretending to be woolly and vague, actually all teeth and meaning.”
  • She explains why re-reading can be exciting by distinguishing between two kinds of suspense: what’s going to happen, or how and why it happens.
  • I was intrigued by her suggestion that fiction can sometimes be made more believable by employing what she calls “antifiction” – techniques that make the narrative “messier, more confusing: in other words more lifelike.”

A great list of signals that indicate you’re reading fiction, specifically about the introductory paragraph of Ulysses:

1. There is no visible narrator.
2. The act of writing is concealed. We are made to believe that the words sprang up on the page without effort.
3. Characters are shown to us through action and dialogue.
4. There is no initial attempt at explanation.
5. There is considerable specificity of detail and a kind of heightened density to the style.
6. Both narrator and characters are unnaturally eloquent.

And finally, she asks an artist friend, Gerry Bergstein, why one would rewrite a famous book and he tells her:

1. To provide a contemporary update of older themes that often contradicts the original
2. Sheer love
3. To make a cultural critique
4. To demonstrate political, or other forms, of social evolution
5. To distill the earlier work
6. To develop the traditions of a beloved forebear
7. Any combination of the above
8. As a joke

But that leaves off what I’m afraid is the most frequent reason, even if it’s unconsciously motivated and not sheer crassness: To get more attention than naturally accrues to a less-famous creator.

Subsequently I searched for reviews, and found this very helpful one, which contains a list of other writing books I could add to a request list:

  • Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House
  • Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
  • Sarah Painter’s Stop Worrying, Start Writing
  • Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World
  • Graywolf Press’s The Art Of series
  • Tin House’s Between the Covers podcast
  • Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft
  • Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction

February 2021 books read

  • Making Shapely Fiction – Jerome Stern, 1991 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • Machines Like Me – Ian McEwan, 2019 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History – John M. Barry, 2004 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler (tr. Daphne Hardy), 1941 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • The Death of Ivan Illych – Leo Tolstoy (tr. Louis and Aylmer Maude), 1886 – I recall this being my father-in-law’s favorite book, which is what prompted me to read it originally. I think this was only my second go-through, prompted by a Forum for Philosophy discussion I heard about through the Amherst College group that read Anna Karenina. Wonderful but I only pulled two quotes so not worth a whole post:
    • “No one pitied him as he wished to be pitied. … He longed to be petted and comforted.”
    • “‘Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.”
  • Philadelphia Here I Come – Brian Friel, 1965. Read for the Irish Writers book group. I usually don’t pull a lot of quotes from play scripts, but WOW, what a fantastic play. I watched two versions: a recording of a live production and the movie. The first had too many paraphrased lines, the second took too many liberties, and neither captured the play’s brilliance, especially the final scene. I would love to see a good production live! The conceit of the Public and Private Gars (same person, as seen by others and only to himself) is cool. I was amused enough to quote to Jonathan this exchange from when Public is fantasizing about his future in America, picking up a girl in his apartment building: “Mind if I walk you past the incinerator, to the elevator?” “You’re welcome, slick operator.”
  • Still Life – Louise Penny, 2005 – My kidney recipient recommended this series and I love reading other people’s favorite books as a way to get to know them better… figured I should start with the first one. I liked it quite a bit, and I’m on hold for the next in the series. I’m intrigued by Penny saying “Just as I created a community I would live in in Three Pines, and villagers I would choose as friends … I also intentionally created, in Armand, a man I would marry. Because, in many ways, I knew if Still Life spawned a series it would become like a marriage. And he needed to have the qualities I admire in a man. In anyone. The qualities I strive for, and so often fall short of, myself.”
  • The Best of Henry Kuttner – Henry Kuttner, 1965. I read most of these stories in anthologies multiple times, and this particular collection at least once many years ago. Jonathan was trying out some of the funny stories (“The Proud Robot” led him to a collection of “Gallegher” stories, which I’ll probably read at some point) so I picked this up again. Most of the humor has paled on me; I remember laughing out loud at “A Gnome There Was,” but now… not so much.
  • The Circus of Dr. Lao – Charles G. Finney, 1935. I’ve known of this for years but finally read it and I’m sorry I waited so long – it is cra-zy, way more out there than I realized. Not much of a novel per se, but a surreal and fantastical experience with a quintessentially middle-America vibe; apparently Bradbury loved it and it inspired his carnival-set Something Wicked This Way Comes (have read, don’t remember at all).

January 2021 books read

  • Wyst: Alastor 1716 – Jack Vance, 1978. The third and last of Vance’s loosely-linked Alastor series, and my favorite because of the real emotion at the end. The setting is a vivid but not particularly coherent universal basic subsistence society, so it’s especially interesting these days. The most memorable aspect is the nutritious-but-boring foods provided free to everyone: cake-like gruff, white drink deedle, and wobbly (pudding-ish) “to fill in the cracks.” Unfortunately the plot relies on truly eye-popping coincidences that would make even Dickens shy away.
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: Parts One and Two – John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling, 2016 – Finishing up my Harry Potter kick with this. I’ve read it once before and enjoyed it again. It’s quite different in flavor from the HP books, not just because it’s a play script but also because the characters, especially Albus and Scorpius (LOVE HIM!), have emotional struggles of a type that don’t show up in the original series. I was lucky enough to win Hamilton lottery tickets pre-pandemic, after years of trying, and had just started focusing on entering the lottery for this – the production sounds amazing. When the Great White Way starts flowing again…
  • The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1910. Umpteenth time comfort re-read triggered by a bout of insomnia.
  • My Side of the Mountain – Jean Craighead George, 1959. Same, although I re-read it more as a kid when I wanted to live Sam Gribley’s life, and less since I got real access to nature and not just Central Park.
  • Nothing to See Here – Kevin Wilson, 2019. Second Monday book group selection, but I didn’t pull any quotes. Interviews with the author explaining his backstory, as well as the group discussion, helped me get more out of it than just an enjoyable-but-slight, slightly-fantastic novel (kids who catch on fire without hurting themselves – the descriptions of that were the best part), but the writing itself wasn’t very memorable on first read.
  • Folk of the Fringe – Orson Scott Card, 1985. Re-read subsequent to The Postman because of the “Pageant Wagon” section with its post-apocalyptic traveling theater troupe. My dad and I, both interested in religious movements (he because of being raised Exclusive Brethren, me being raised by him, both of us agnostic/atheist but fascinated by why people believe things) talked off and on about going to the (free! but in the middle of nowhere!) LDS Hill Cumorah pageant. I had forgotten than Card wrote the current script. I just now found out that I missed my last chance and it’s canceled for good. There are only bootleg clips on Youtube. Darn it!
  • The Overstory – Richard Powers, 2018 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Captain Harlock The Classic Collection 1 – Leiji Matsumoto, 2018 English translation (originally released in Japan in 1977). Tried the original this time – good but still can’t recapture being 14 and watching Albator on French TV. But I did/do love the crazy over-the-top capsule description: “A boy’s eyes burn with hopes for the future. /The eyes of a young man recall struggles in which he staked his life. It is the way of a man’s life to grow old without regret… / This is the story of men who sought adventure and romance in the vast ocean called the universe!!”
  • The Iliad – Homer (8th century BC), tr. Robert Fagles (1998) – quotes pulled, tbd
  • War Day (1984) and Nature’s End (1986) – Whitley Strieber and James W. Kunetka. More in my post-apocalyptic re-read kick. The first one was really quite good and atmospheric, but the second suffers in comparison because they cram so many plots into it. It’s not just the earth after pollution (there’s some climate change too but it doesn’t wreak much havoc), but there’s a mysterious Big Bad guru, anti-aging, savior AI, super-intelligent children… it’s a mess (that I still enjoy).
  • The Temple of Silence: Herbert Crowley, His Forgotten Works and Worlds – Justin Duerr, 2017. Impulse pick-up at the library of a hugely-oversized (screw legs on it and it could be the coffee-table), lavishly-illustrated investigation of the creator of The Wigglemuch (forgotten comic strip, not great IMO) and some fascinating decorative art.

December 2020 books read

  • Straight – Dick Francis, 1989. Francis used to be one of my favorite authors, but I’ve cooled on him with age. This one didn’t sound familiar, but I do think I read it once long ago (many I’ve read multiple times). I did enjoy the protagonist inheriting his brother’s jewelry business and figuring out how to keep it going; Francis’ expansion into milieus unrelated to horses kept my interest in his books going, plus I’m a sucker for getting-good-at-work plots.
  • Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants – Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2013. Quotes pulled, TBD, but just in case I don’t get there: I have to say this is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years – maybe the past decade – and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m re-reading it for a different book group now and bought my own copy because I love it that much. It has changed multiple aspects of the way I see and think about the world.
  • Lost Horizon – James Hilton, 1933. I’ve read this several times before and enjoyed it again despite the racism and misogyny. I probably first encountered it through watching the movie on TV with my family, and then I went on a James Hilton deep dive in the 80’s or 90’s. LH reminds me of other “secret advanced community” stories that I knew first, like Heinlein’s “Lost Legacy.”
  • The Forgotten Door – Alexander Key, 1965. Slight but cool children’s book by the author of Escape to Witch Mountain, with a very similar storyline.
  • The Overdue Life of Amy Byler – Kelly Harms, 2019. Ehhh…. it featured a librarian so I wanted to like it. I don’t read a lot of contemporary light fiction but I think it was well-done for that genre? It was just trying so hard to be funny and “relatable” that it ended up exhausting.
  • Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol, 1842 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • All 7 in the Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling, 1997 – 2007. I had surgery in December and, as planned, I re-read the HP books during my recovery. I was last seriously incapacitated (by flu) in the early oughts and re-read all the ones that had been published by then; it’s a very fond memory and I looked forward to the revisit. Rowling’s TERFishness now taints her, but my purchases are in the distant past and I still love the work. Recovery led to lots more re-reads!
  • Kavik, the Wolfdog – Walt Morey, 1968. A favorite from childhood that still holds up, despite being a straight lift from the original:
  • Lassie Come-Home – Eric Knight, 1940. Holds up even better! I love the characters we meet in passing, especially Rowlie the traveling potter.
  • The Postman – David Brin, 1985. A favorite post-apocalyptic novel that led me back to others. The P-A traveling theater troupe is such a trope (hah) that I wonder where it came from. It’s also in Folk of the Fringe, Station Eleven, and the play Mr. Burns – those come to mind but I’m sure there are others.
  • A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens, 1843. For the umpteenth time, after watching A Muppet Christmas Carol (delightfully ridiculous).
  • Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky), 1878 (2000). I just read the Garnett translation for a different book club in April; this was a slow read with an Amherst College group, 50 pages a week starting in August. I haven’t even gotten to the previous quotes but I marked new ones – it will be interesting to see how much they overlap. I’ll probably do just one post for both but haven’t decided yet.
  • The Deadly Isles – Jack Vance, 1969. Vance is one of my favorite SF/fantasy writers, and I mostly enjoy his mysteries. I hadn’t read this one before; not his best but it’s interesting how the flavor of the characters is consistent. I felt the lack of his brilliant imagination of alternate cultures and environments…
  • Trullion: Alastor 2262 – Jack Vance, 1973 …so I jumped to this set of three (each title is taken from a planet in the Alastor star cluster), among my favorites of his SF/fantasy works. The first is set on a watery world and introduces the game of hussade, which apparently was imported into the Star Trek expanded universe???
  • Marune: Alastor 933 – Jack Vance, 1975. This one has stuck in my mind since I first read it decades ago. On this planet the profusion of moons means there’s seldom darkness, and the Rhune culture has developed rituals around the type of light each combination sheds. They find the act of eating in public shameful – one character says of the typical non-Rhune: “Without shame he displays his victual, salivates, wads it into his orifice, grinds it with his teeth, massages it with his tongue, impels the pulp along his intestinal tract.” The plot of each of these novels is a not-terrible whodunit, but it’s the atmosphere I love. Jonathan says he remembers public eating as taboo from Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun (1957) – if I didn’t hate Asimov so much I would read it to confirm. It’s also in Bunuel’s Phantom of Liberty (1974), which I haven’t seen, but it made such an impression on my parents that they mentioned it several times.

Year in review: 38,422 pages over 113 books, a few more books but many more pages than last year because there were a bunch of doorstoppers. Most popular: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, over 9 million other readers (!); least, “Un Autre Monde” (J.-H. Rosny aîné), 4 other people.

November 2020 books read

  • America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake – Ted Levin, 2016 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing – Ben Blatt, 2017. A Jonathan recommendation – very interesting if a little slight. Great book design with mauve ink. My favorite bit was the graph of exclamation points per 100,000 words (James Joyce tops the list!).
  • The Whisper of Glocken – Carol Kendall, 1965. A sequel to The Gammage Cup, one of my childhood favorites, which I just discovered. It’s not as good as the original, but not bad at all – if I had read it when I was a kid I would have been very fond of it. Where the first one’s message is that ordinarily eccentric people can be heroes, this one says (among other things) that heroes are just ordinarily eccentric people.
  • An Ideal Husband – Oscar Wilde, 1894 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • Troubled Blood – Robert Galbraith, 2020 – In my notes I had the title of this newest Cormoran Strike (J.K. Rowling pseudonym) as “Tedious Murder,” which isn’t that far off… I do enjoy these, and to me Rowling’s problematic views don’t come through as strongly as some say, but boy does the lady need an editor. Also, apparently “disorientated” is totally UK standard, but it bugs me and I feel like I only see it in Rowling (don’t read enough PD James, I guess).
  • The Trial – Franz Kafka, 1925 (Breon Mitchell tr, 1999) – quotes pulled, TBD
  • Captain Harlock Space Pirate: Dimensional Voyage – Leiji Matsumoto, 2017 – The Captain Harlock TV show, or rather Albator since we were living in France, is one of the formative esthetic experiences of my youth. I can’t quite recapture the way it made me feel, even re-watching the original episodes, and I hoped this manga might help. But I didn’t realize it’s not the original. I still enjoyed it, and boy do I wish I could rock that cape…
  • The Prestige – Christopher Priest, 1995. I saw the movie a decade or so ago and the final twist made a huge impression on me because it was so infuriatingly preposterous. A blog I’ve been following and enjoying recently, Occasional Mumblings by “vacuous wastrel”, loved the original book and prompted me to pick it up. Good not great to my taste, but it does sort of resolve my biggest problem with the movie’s approach (my attempt to explain without spoiling too much: the “prestige material” is frozen rather than dead).

October 2020 books read

  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong, 2019 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Night Boat to Tangier – Kevin Barry, 2019 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate – Robert D. Kaplan, 2012 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • The Waves – Virginia Woolf, 1931 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • The Anodyne Necklace – Martha Grimes, 1983. Jonathan’s been reading these and thought I might enjoy the colorful characters like Melrose Plant. But as it turns out this book (early, third in the series) doesn’t give much of that flavor. It was just OK; I did like the bossy little girl (Emily Louise Perk) who prefers horses to people, and was perversely fascinated by the Cripps family, recurring characters whom Jonathan memorably compared to the Python “Most Awful Family in Britain” runners-up.
  • When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon – Joshua Mezrich, 2019. In the acknowledgments Mezrich says he was inspired by The Emperor of All Maladies and My Age of Anxiety, and he succeeds in combining a fascinating history of organ transplant – it’s such an incredibly recent innovation! – with his personal experience in medicine. A million thanks to his editors who apparently convinced him to keep most of his jokes out of this book (he threatens to write a sequel called The Cutting Room Floor). Warning that the surgery scenes are very graphic.
  • Heritage of the Star – Sylvia Louise Engdahl, 1973. Many many times re-read – this was my very favorite book when I was a pre-teen and I still very much love it. The writing is good, but the premise/plot twist is genius and holds up to this day.
  • Dune Messiah – Frank Herbert, 1969. I re-read Dune last month and kept on because I want to get to the scene where a character surrounds himself with the “little makers” like a skin and gets superpowers, which must be in the third volume. I remember these getting worse and worse, but that may be primarily with the fourth; this one wasn’t bad (and it’s refreshingly short!) but not great or memorable.

The Lie that Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction – John Dufresne, 2003

Books about how to write are a sub-genre of self-help for me, in the sense that I rarely do the exercises or whatever the author recommends, and typically the content immediately falls out of my head – but reading one gives me some short-lived motivation to do better. Take-aways – specific tips, ideas or techniques – would be gravy. This one was particularly enjoyable not for its overall structure (it’s a bit of a grab-bag) but because Dufresne uses a lot of great quotes. I did record a few tips as well, and I was led to it in the first place by the Wikipedia article on eye dialect (Dufresne’s arguments on why to avoid it are very cogent).

Excellent-sounding quotes (which Jonathan is helping me verify – any unsourced quotation should be viewed with suspicion, even in the world of print – see Nice Guys Finish Seventh) kick right off with the epigraph!

  • Lao Tzu: “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” confirmed from Verse 27 of the Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell translation
  • Willa Cather: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened.” confirmed from O Pioneers!, part II section IV
  • “Eudora Welty tells us about learning as a child that books were written by people and being disappointed that they were not natural wonders like trees or dogs.” Actual quote is “It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.” confirmed from One Writer’s Beginnings
  • “Stanislavski said that without truth, clichés will fill up every spot in a character (and in ourselves) that is not already solid with living feeling.” confirmed from An Actor Prepares, chapter 2 section 3
  • Garry Winogrand: “Nothing is quite so mysterious as a thing well-described.” Wow, Jonathan reached out to the Quote Investigator, who researched it and wrote it up – the actual phrasing is “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described,” which is less compelling to me at least… Thank you so much, Garson!

That last one segues into the good writing advice gleaned from others. He mentions Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern, quoting Stern’s warning about the “Weird Harold” story, “focused on a character who is strange and different” – I hadn’t heard of the book, which has excellent reviews, so I’ve requested it through my library. They have a great feature where you can set a hold to activate after a certain date. I put in for January so as to spread out the reading-a-writing-book juice.

Even the jacket blurb led to something else. Steve Yarbrough, quoted praising this book, compared it to Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town – I read the title essay linked here, and although I don’t really follow the argument on a first read, it’s intriguing. The public library system doesn’t hold that book but the academic one does; on the post-pandemic reading list it goes.

More great advice, from Elizabeth Bowen on dialogue: “It should be brief; it should add to the reader’s present knowledge; it should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation; it should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk…” and “All good dialogue deals with something unprecedented.”

His own dialogue advice is also great, and in fact I used this bit just now: “Beginning a line of dialogue with one word or two, then a comma before the content, though it is the way we talk, does not work well in dialogue. (I first heard this advice from George Garrett at a writers’ conference, and it’s the best single bit of wisdom I know of for improving dialogue.)”

That was an easy sell, but I am having a hard time with “Don’t tag an adverbial clause depicting action to a line of dialogue” because I do it all the time. “If it’s important, it should not be subordinated to a line of speech. If it’s not important, it gets cut.” Characters do not have to “earn the write [sic] to speak by behaving as well.” Hmm… I will think on that. I should certainly edit a bunch of them out, now that I recognize it as a tic.

The other writing bits I noted are his use of synapses as a metaphor for gaps between scenes: “Like the gap in a spark plug. No gap, no fire, no ignition, no motion.”

You can learn more about the structure of a short story by reading Checkhov’s ‘Heartache’ than you can in a semester of Creative Writing 101. If you read like a writer, that is, which means you have to read everything twice, at least.

A more general observation: “When you have seen something beautiful, you have looked at it beautifully. When you look closely at things, you see what is unique about them, what is surprising and deserving of your attention.”

Finally, I learned about:

  • William Carlos Williams’ flower study poems (Daisy, Primrose, Queen Anne’s Lace, Great Mullein) – I don’t think they are as carefully observed as he does but I enjoyed reading them.
  • Dufrese says the Jale people (who are more typically called Dani) have no word for green – Wikipedia says only two color terms, mili for cool/dark and mola for warm/light shades, but it’s complicated and very interesting!
  • GIQ – giant imperial quart, Worcester slang for a large beer
  • Newfoundland was its own country (a dominion of the British Crown) from 1907 until 1933
  • Finally, from his delightful ode to reference books in general and cookbooks in particular I learned about mannish water, stamp and go, ackee, and swamp cabbage!

September 2020 books read

  • The Day Gone By: An Autobiography – Richard Adams, 1990. I’ve been on an Adams kick and finally got a hold of this. I really enjoyed it but wouldn’t say it has a ton of appeal outside Adams fans and those who are interested in the natural history of Britain or English education (it makes perfect sense that his public school, Bradfield College, has an ampitheatre with a tradition of putting on Greek plays).
  • Watership Down – Richard Adams, 1972. One of the books I re-read the most frequently. Having just finished the autobiography, knowing the real-world inspiration for Hazel and Bigwig deepened my appreciation for them as characters.
  • Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future – Bill McKibben, 2007 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland – Patrick Radden Keefe, 2018 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Grass – Sherri Tepper, 1989. An SF classic I’ve always meant to read; glad I did, but boy is it weird in its pacing and atmosphere (I loved the descriptions of the grass landscape, which seemed to completely stop after the scene had been set).
  • Beowulf: An Illustrated Edition – translated by Seamus Heaney, illustrations edited and with an afterword by John D. Niles, 2008 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Grendel – John Gardner, 1971 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • “Un Autre Monde” – J.-H. Rosny aîné, 1895. I’ve already forgotten what led me to this fascinating tale of a mutant human who can see invisible species sharing our world. Great early SF; I think I read other works by him when I was a kid.
  • Dune – Frank Herbert, 1965. Re-read prompted by the new Villeneuve movie trailer. I encountered the Dune series in my teens and persuaded my dad to read at least the first one; his major quibble with the sand worms (the friction!) has stuck in my mind all these years, but this time around it also sunk in that the scale of the worms makes the whole notion of hooking and riding them pretty ridiculous. The technique of epigraphs from future histories is brilliant – did Herbert pioneer that? – and it’s amazing how evocative a few well-chosen unfamiliar-yet-evocative terms and proper names (melange, Mentat, Bene Gesserit, etc.) can be.