March 2021 books read

  • Dragonsinger– Anne McCaffrey, 1977 – comfort re-read, still/always holds up.
  • The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker, 2018 – quotes pulled, TBD
  • 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. I marked just one quote: “the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of ‘heathen’.”
  • Esther Waters – George Moore, 1894
  • 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

Esther Waters – George Moore, 1894

Read for Irish Writers – a joint hybrid meeting with a similar group in Castlebar, County Mayo, which was delightful. Very good but alas I’m blogging this three years later (the quotes were marked in an old Nook and I thought they were lost!) so I don’t remember much, except that it was very dark and realistic. Also the novel has many Plymouth Brethren (the sect into which my dad was born), so that was of interest to me.

  • “[Christ] had not forgiven, because she could not forgive herself”
  • “‘It is always a woman’s fault, ma’am'” – but Waters shows that not to be true
  • “Esther looked at the poor wizened features [of the infant], twitched with pain, and the far-off cry of doom, a tiny tinkle from the verge, shivered in the ear with a strange pathos.”
  • “religion is easy enough at times, but there is other times when it don’t seem to fit in with one’s duty”

So the flood of gold continued to roll into the little town, decrepit and colourless by its high shingle beach and long reaches of muddy river. The dear gold jingled merrily in the pockets, quickening the steps, lightening the heart, curling lips with smiles, opening lips with laughter. The dear gold came falling softly, sweetly as rain, soothing the hard lives of working folk. Lives pressed with toil lifted up and began to dream again. The dear gold was like an opiate; it wiped away memories of hardship and sorrow, it showed life in a lighter and merrier guise, and the folk laughed at their fears for the morrow and wondered how they could have thought life so hard and relentless. The dear gold was pleasing as a bird on the branch, as a flower on the stem; the tune it sang was sweet, the colour it flaunted was bright.