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, clich├ęs 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!