Top Ten Tuesday: Books on a Beach

Today, we're listing the books we'd take to relax on a towel in the sand, accompanied by sunglasses and margaritas and the soothing sound of waves against the shore. Now, if I were headed to the beach this summer, I'd go for something I hadn't already read. I'd look for something by certain authors—someone I could expect to write a tale in the right mood for the place. Say, anything light, summery, fun or humorous.
Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...
Here are some authors I'd look to:

1. Sarah Dessen. For beautifully-written stories of family relationships and romance. Her very covers are summery. Read and loved: That Summer.

2. Diana Wynne Jones. For magic and humor. Read and loved: The Dark Lord of Derkholm.

3. Terry Pratchett. Ditto. I'd like to read his teen books. Read and loved: The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic.

4. Shannon Hale. You know I love and recommend her young adult fantasies; she writes funny and heartwarming contemporary adult work as well. Read and loved (from her adult work): The Actor and the Housewife.

5. Madeleine L'Engle. I haven't read the last two Time books, and then there's all those Adam and Vicky ones. Maybe I'd start with A Ring of Endless Light. Read and loved (besides the Time books): Shoot. I cannot remember the title...

6. Janette Rallison. For light, happy, funny work. Read and loved: Fame, Glory, and Other Things on My To-Do List.

Of course, these are all authors I've already read at least one book by. Which means that I had to leave off Meg Cabot, Ann Brashares, and all the new mermaid books that I might be tempted to pick up and take along.

Also, the list hasn't reached ten. So here are a few recommendations from my already-read-on-a-beach (or somewhere) list.

7. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. It gets off to a slow start, but winds up hilarious.

8. Anything by Jane Austen, but especially Persuasion, which partly takes place on the shores of Lyme.

9. A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks. Some of his other works might be equally good, but I've always hesitated out of fear of more tragedy-stricken love stories. This one, however, is just lovely, and set in a seaside town.

10. The Anne of Green Gables books would, I think, make excellent beach reads, though Prince Edward Island in pre-automotive days wasn't necessarily a world of constant access to sand and waves. Anne's House of Dreams and Anne of Avonlea catch the most of the shoreside feel, if I remember rightly.

What would you take to the beach? Or the mountains, or wherever you like to go on vacation? I am definitely in a beach mood right now, or perhaps a desert one. Anywhere I can find the sun...

EDIT: I always remember the best ones right after I post. Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries would so be on my list, as would P.G. Wodehouse's books. I've just loved what I've read of both so far.


Boys, Girls and Books: A look at male and female in objective literary criticism

In response to Masha, The Effect of Objective Criticism on Taste, and to Mr. Pond, On the Importance of Being a Snob.

As with all good dialectics, the goal of ours is the search for agreement in truth, so I've enjoyed seeing the ways the three of us agree this week. Never fear, however—there's plenty to debate yet. I'm going to mix things up a bit, too.

From Masha:
"Taste is like any other appetite. It varies from person to person and time to time. Some tastes, formed in a habit of laziness, need to be purged or pruned, or redirected entirely. Other tastes - a taste for the good, ought to be continually nourished.... A person may say "I know Hemingway is superior to Dan Brown, I just like Brown better." without ever going on to ask why he prefers bad writing to good, weak ideas to strong ones, and banality to beauty."
I like this, and agree with it in part. But it needs one caveat: good taste does not necessarily mean preference for the highest fashions. Learning to love well-cooked steak and good red wine has never stopped me from liking cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Loving Beethoven and Brahms has had no effect on my pleasure in listening to people like Taylor Swift. And learning to love Dostoevsky hasn't prevented me from loving Little Women as much as ever.

Maybe it's not this way for everyone, but it is for me. And Mr. Pond seems to concur when he says the following:
"Consider, for instance, the rough and nasal vocals of folk singing—completely unsuited to the open and resonant style of the opera house. Yet within each stream of art, we can point to various practitioners and say, this person or that person is objectively superior in their expression of the art and the mastery of the craft."
Which is how we can objectively say—and Mr. Pond and Masha have confirmed agreement with this—C.S. Lewis, even in Narnia, writes better prose than J.K. Rowling, who writes better prose than Stephenie Meyer. I like all three of these authors, and to some extent even prefer Harry Potter to Narnia, if only because I think Rowling treated her themes with a little more depth and complexity. She wrote for older readers, of course, so that's apples and oranges again, and doesn't negate the point.

So far, we're in agreement. And I continue to agree with Mr. Pond as he says that "if anybody can say whatever they want about art and it’s all equally valid...what's the good of anything?" Objective criticism is possible in that as we master our art, we earn the right to speak about it through our understanding of the art's rules, traditions and goals. But I think that no matter how well we understand our art, we come to it with a mind shaped by our time, education, preferences, and everything else that makes us who we are. Including whether we're male or female.

The three of us want to talk about that last point, but before I do: many of my closest online friends and fellow armchair literary critics are men, and I respect them wholeheartedly. Also, I firmly believe that male and female are different in material ways, including predispositions toward certain mental, physical and emotional strengths, and that we ought to celebrate such differences rather than force an artificial equality.

I am no expert on gender inequality in art criticism, though. For one of the more thoughtful articles I've come across, however, try Meghan O'Rourke's Slate piece from last autumn: "Can a Woman Be a 'Great American Novelist?'" And here are my own suspicions:

First: whatever is considered manly by society, most boys will want to become. Likewise, whatever is considered womanly (and therefore 'sissy' on the playground), most boys will avoid. Girls, however, do not necessarily choose pink over blue and ballet over soccer as a means of self-defining gender identity. On the same principle, girls are generally comfortable reading about boys, but the reverse is much less true. Men do outgrow the exclusivity somewhat, at least if they're taught to, but central female experiences like menstruation and barrenness and childbirth are still held at arms' length. It's hard to blame men for that when I, as a woman, turn peevish at such conversations unless they are very, very artistic. But those experiences do deserve representation.

Second, men tend to be more black-and-white than women. Therefore, a man who finds glaring flaws or weaknesses in a book is probably more likely to dismiss it outright than a woman will. A woman, I think, more frequently picks out what she liked about the book and considers that admirable.

Third, men and women pull toward opposite ends of the scale of logical importance versus emotional importance (speaking of gender as a whole, not individuals). In other words, men care more about the big overarching matters of the world, whereas women care to know how such things matter to themselves and to those they love. Which means, I think, that intellectual men are likely to gravitate directly toward high-level literature (in reading, writing and reviewing), and intellectual women are likely to read, love, review and write up and down the levels of art. Those women will write more than their share of the best of every level (with the possible exception of the topmost), because more women write nowadays than men. But that range does affect the playing field.

All this together adds up to a thousand possibilities for gender slant in artistic criticism, and I'm honestly not sure how much can be changed without resorting to an awkward, forced statistical equality. I'd settle for things as they are before the latter. But I do think it's worth being aware of the way men and women affect each other in our common quest for successful art.


Reading after Midnight and other stories

Rather high on the list of things I ought not do: stay up past midnight to finish a dystopian novel. If you've done this, you probably know that it's hard to sleep afterward. Your eyes don't want to stay closed.

Still... wow. I have a lot to say about Veronica Roth's Divergent. A lot. So much that a review might wind up at The Hog's Head, too. It was fantastic—and painful—and romantic—and terrifying—and I'll stop there, but there's much more, oh yes.

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Memorial Day Weekend plans: Spend as much time as possible with visiting family. Drive to Seattle to have dinner with my best friend, who is driving out from Montana with friends (can NOT wait to see you, MissPhotographerB!!!) Play in the Great Annual Memorial Day Street Hockey Game. Celebrate our oldest nephew's graduation from high school. Oh, and I have to get up in front of people and sing. Also, I have to write a post for the blogalectic.

These two introverts may be catatonic for the week following, but it should be fun.

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Maia's new trick of the week: hiding up inside the armchair when she knows we're about to leave the house. She doesn't like being locked in the back rooms, away from all her favorite ways of being naughty. We actually have to turn the chair over to get her out.

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Writers' link of the week: Natalie Whipple on knowing When to Rewrite. My favorite part, because I know exactly what she means: "But more than that, you also have to love the story. I'm not talking regular love, either. I'm talking, passionate, devoted, undying obsession. I'm talking love that would make Edward and Bella's look normal. You have to love this story enough to suffer."

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Music of the week: When you grow up Southern Baptist, you can't help but love this sort of thing all your life. Even if you turn into a (mostly) Yankee Catholic nerd who usually listens to Gregorian chant and indie techno and popera and wizard rock. Roots are roots, and I'll always love mine.

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Funny of the week: I missed participating, but loved this #lessinterestingbooks hashtag that went around on Twitter. Some of the best from my tweeps:

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sects, But Were Afraid to Ask
The Divine Sitcom
Love in the Time of Psoriasis

Pride and Pinochle

The Board Games Trilogy

Mere Scientology
Diary of Barney Frank
The Shaq
The Gatsby

...and my favorite random one, by @shaggydogmedia: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Commerce.

Hmm. The Cat, the Magician, and the Closet? Speaker for the Catatonic? Sleeping Pretty? Anne's House of Wishful Thinking? Misdemeanor and Punishment? War and More War? Blathering Heights? Okay, I'd better stop...

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It's not often I use the word 'catatonic' twice in one post. I'll call that a good thing.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: A Crown of Swords (The Wheel of Time, Book 7)

A Crown of Swords (Wheel of Time, #7)She did seem to be peering down her nose at Rand, though tall as she was, he stood head and shoulders taller. “You must let yourself be guided by us. One wrong move, one wrong word, and you may deliver to Cairhien the same disaster you gave Tarabon and Arad Doman. Worse, you can do incalculable damage to matters about which you know almost nothing.”

Perrin winced. The whole speech could not have been better designed to inflame Rand. But Rand simply listened till she was done, then turned to Sorilea. “Take the Aes Sedai to the tents. All of them, for now. Make sure everyone knows they’re Aes Sedai. Let it be seen that they hop when you say toad. Since you hop when the
Car’a’carn says it, that should convince everybody I’m not wearing an Aes Sedai leash.”

Author: Robert Jordan

Synopsis: Rand, having escaped the imprisonment and torture from Elaida’s Aes Sedai, returns to Cairhien to remove Colavaere from the Sun Throne and then heads to Illian to take down Sammael. While trying to establish her independence as the rebels’ Amyrlin Seat, Egwene sends an apparently dying Lan to protect Nynaeve. In Ebou Dar, Nynaeve and Elayne and Aviendha seek the Bowl of the Winds to turn the weather, and Mat is unwillingly seduced by Queen Tylin as he tries to keep track of his friends.

Notes: Do forgive me for posting Wheel of Time books two weeks in a row. I'll try and vary it up for the next couple of weeks.

My sincere amusement to Tor. They’re a great SFF publisher, and I dream like a fangirl of writing a book for them someday. But I have to laugh at the cover for this book, which I am almost embarrassed to be seen with. I guess I’m lucky that the ugly but super-buff image of Rand isn’t cradling a swooning, big-busted Min.

At this point, after reading sometimes until my sight blurs over, I’m starting to get a touch frustrated with the story. For starters, I don’t like being made to want characters to wind up in unchaste relationships. But I’m so tired of the suspense between Rand and Min and Elayne and Aviendha that I want to put the four of them in a house together, make all their feelings known, get the Wise Women to set them all up in Aiel polygamy, and be done with it. And polygamy is chaste compared to the general direction things seem to be going. At least Jordan fades to black.

For seconds, this book left me in suspense on too many other points as well. Nynaeve and Lan? The Seanchan and Mat (will the Daughter of the Nine Moons come around in book eight?) Perrin, leading the explosive Faile and Berelain and a handful of Aes Sedai into who knows what? Why did Professor Fel die? And would somebody please take down both Alviarin and Elaida, because I can’t stand either of them any longer?

For thirds, Rand actually was arrogant in this book. And that simply must change. I’ve loved him—he’s the first and foremost of what keeps me reading. I can live without knowing the answers to cliffhangers, but not with an unlikeable protagonist. And while I might put up with Rand having three wives, or even three concubines, he simply cannot go on being arrogant. Can. Not. Happen.

All right, I’ve blown off my steam. On to the good stuff.

The Atha’an Miere, whose name—to my amused annoyance—is given two different pronunciations in the glossary, showed up with more frequency in this book. (For now, I think I’ll stick with ah-thah-AHN mee-EHR.) I enjoyed getting a further sense for their culture, although I wince at the very thought of wearing a chain between an earring and a nose ring. That has to hurt at first, and it’s just asking to get caught on things. But their strict egalitarianism and equally strict rank, their bright colors and big ships and Windfinders all fascinated me.

Egwene is handling her role as rebel Amyrlin with admirable strength and grace. I generally enjoy a turn in her head.

Cadsuane fascinated me. I’m not sure yet that I trust her, but Rand needed her to do what she’s done. He also needed Min to counteract that, of course, although Min got Rand into some of his mental distress in the first place. As for Min, I like her a lot now—most of the time.

Tylin and Mat drove me nuts. Just nuts. They’re both horrible to the opposite sex, and what Tylin did was unthinkable.

Nynaeve and Lan have my heart and sympathy. And I’m curious about that Atha’an Miere wedding—cautious and amused, but curious. Post-wedding, what is Lan feeling, really? And what about Nynaeve? I can guess, but that’s not nearly as much fun as reading about it.

I wonder if Jordan intentionally chose Asha’man for the channeling men because it reads a shaman. That’s an odd little mystery that distracts me every time I see the word.

Recommendation: If you’ve read the last book, you won’t be able to escape this one. And yeah, I’m going to read on.


Top Ten Tuesday... or not

Today's inspiring Top Ten Tuesday topic is a confessional: Books We've Lied About.

The problem is... I'm honestly not much of a liar. :) If you ask, you'll hear the truth that I've never read Moby Dick or even the cliffnotes. I'll also admit my inability to bear Steinbeck and that I'm afraid to read Wuthering Heights. No shame here.

So I'm sitting out this week. But if you want to read others' confessions, you can do so over at The Broke and the Bookish. It sounds like fun reading.


The Effects of Taste upon Objective Criticism

In the comments to last Monday's post, Good Story, Bad Writing, I wound up crossing foils with longtime sparring partner Mr. Pond and new-come blademaster Masha. And as we danced the forms, moving fluidly through Cat Crosses the Courtyard to Dragon Swings its Tail to Snow Mingles with a Waterfall... okay, I have definitely been reading too much Wheel of Time. And I'm going to kill that awful mix of warsport metaphors right there. Suffice it to say that the three of us found enough to talk about that we've decided to hold another blogalectic.

A blogalectic, for those who don't remember, is a debate hosted on two or more blogs. Mr. Pond coined the term when he and I went back and forth for several weeks over the rules of good writing.

As Mr. Pond pointed out in preparatory talks, matters of artistic criticism and what should be considered art are material for PhD theses. Unfortunately, I am not a PhD. Nor am I an MA, or a BA, or even an AA. I am a GED. A homeschooled one, who reads a lot and gave up college plans mainly for love of a job, but a GED nonetheless. I may ask more questions than I can answer.

Our discussion in last Monday's combox began and ended with the potential for confusion between taste and critical judgment, and that's where the three of us plan to start. From Masha:
The definitions of bad writing and bad story are not as subjective as we sometimes are led to believe, though you're right in that our tastes and prejudices do color our responses to stories. Bad writing is writing that fails to convey the intentions of the author in a clear and beautiful (in the objective sense) manner.

From Mr. Pond:
We flatter ourselves that because we can speak, therefore we're competent judges of story and narrative. Actually, as John McIntyre argues, written English is a distinct dialect that has its own rules and conventions; it takes years to master it. These rules and the mastery thereof is—have to say it—objective.

On the outside, this looks like a simple issue. Taste says "I like the Backstreet Boys better than N'Sync" and critical judgment says "But neither of them come anywhere near Mozart." Discussion ended.

Well, maybe that discussion. But there are reviewers for pop music magazines, and reviewers who talk of symphony in important newspapers. Likewise, there are reviewers for the latest young adult fiction and reviewers for the stuff that might win the Man Booker Prize. The objective standards for paranormal romance differ from those for potential Nobel laureates, but they exist. At least, they're supposed to. Hmm. The latter two might be bad examples.

Regardless of level, critics face the problem of trying to separate their subjective taste from their objective knowledge, and whether—and how—to mingle the two in the final review. This is, for the most part, possible. I liked Matched better than The Hunger Games, but that doesn't stop me from appreciating the latter's (greater) merit.

At last, we get to the point. I think it's possible to distinguish taste and critical objectivity for the most part, but not entirely.

The first reason is that trends in education and philosophy may reflect elite blinders and even instill prejudices against what doesn't fit with l'esprit du temps. (Yes, the girl with the GED is talking about trends in education. I'll admit I'm getting over my head.) Practically, it seems trends work out to an overall distaste for—in the spirit of our times, at least—traditional ideas of morality (all morality, not just sexual), religious narratives, existential hope, and quite possibly genre. I wonder how much positive-themed literary work even gets written nowadays, let alone makes it to publication, review, and consideration for literary honors. I don't follow the right publications enough to know.

But perhaps a better argument for the subjectivity practiced by even intelligent and educated critics is simply this list of the 50 Best Author vs. Author Takedowns of All Time (here's Part 2), compiled by Michelle Kerns. As it turns out, Hemingway hated Faulkner, who didn't think much of Twain, who wanted to dig Jane Austen out of her grave and brain her with her own shinbone. Austen was thought unworthy not only by Twain but was disliked by Charlotte Brontë and thought "without genius, wit or knowledge of the world" by Emerson. Then there's George Bernard Shaw, who "measured his mind against Shakespeare's" and despised the latter.

Which begs me to respond to one of Masha's points. If "Bad writing is writing that fails to convey the intentions of the author in a clear and beautiful (in the objective sense) manner," we must at least qualify that no matter how clear and beautiful the conveyance, some intelligent people will still not "get it." And no matter how objectively beautiful it appears to us, someone else may think it lackluster and uninspiring.

Some of the above authors seem to understand the influence of taste in their opinion; others, less so. Still others seem playful in their hyperbole. None of the comments, of course, are given any context in the above article, so there may be more to each story. But after all, we humans—especially some of us writers—enjoy the sound of our own thoughts, particularly if we can express them cleverly.

Also, our taste can affect the very way we read, opening or closing our thoughts to various weaknesses and strengths in the text. Further, we're infinitely complex, and our ability to "know our own minds" comes only with much study and effort. Even then, that knowledge is open to change and areas of confusion or uncertainty.

Fortunately for us, the lone critic is known to be at risk of subjective influences, and therefore the canon of literature is defined by time and general (but not universal) consensus. It also stays vague around the edges.

I believe that objective criticism is loosely possible—but loosely, and on the plainest levels. If Austen can be called out for lack of wit, we can suspect our taste of affecting even the simplest and most obvious critique. I'd say it's important to understand that for humility if nothing else. No matter how educated, no matter how well-read, any of us can put forward wrong criticism.

Of course, the very idea that we can be wrong implies that there is right and wrong in the art of critique. But that's another blog post.


The Power of Sunshine and other stories

My to-do list yesterday actually frightened me, so I blew it all off and went to see my friend Elizabeth.

The sun was shining, and I hadn't seen her in a year, so we drank lemonade and mulched blueberry bushes and planted sunflowers and talked for hours. She gave me a lot of plants. You know how I feel about plants, of course.

Today, my to-do list still frightens me. But at least part of it involves transplanting some tomatoes and parsley out in the sun.

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Maia, having been left alone all day, decided to be naughty all evening—attacking plants, knocking things over in other rooms, and staring balefully at me when I scolded her. She got up at six-thirty this morning to continue her rampage. At least I now have a longer day to accomplish that dread to-do list.

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Happy thought: new books.

Divergent by Veronica Roth, Beauty by Robin McKinley, Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, and The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.

Of course, I also had two books come in at the library this week, one of which was Wheel of Time #8, so my spare moments for the next six weeks have been officially commandeered. At least I've already read The Goose Girl once.

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Writers' link of the week: Agent Jennifer Laughran on word counts in juvenile fiction.

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Music of the week: I love this sort of thing.

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Funny of the week: This week you get two, because I can't resist either.

1) Cracked on adorable-yet-evil cat behaviors, thanks to George. As with all Cracked articles, the usual advisory about language and adult concepts applies.

2) Stuff Christians Like: Proofreading your way through the church service. After growing up with bulletins and projectors and PowerPoint lyrics, there is nothing more funny to me than a little typo in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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For the first time in 2011: yesterday, the air outside got warm. And it's still warm today. I'm going to go transplant those tomatoes and parsley. I'm pretty sure the world isn't going to come to an end tomorrow, but it is supposed to start raining. Close enough.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Lord of Chaos (The Wheel of Time, Book 6)

Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time, #6)[Mat] felt Aviendha’s eyes on the back of his neck, heard a rasping sound. Sitting cross-legged against the tent wall, she was drawing her belt knife along a honing stone and watching him.

When Nalesean entered with Daerid and Talmanes, he greeted them with, “We are going to tickle some Aes Sedai under the chin, rescue a mule, and put a snip-nosed girl on the Lion Throne. Oh, yes. That’s Aviendha. Don’t look at her crosswise, or she’ll try to cut your throat and probably slit her own by mistake.” The woman laughed as if he had made the funniest joke in the world. She did not stop sharpening her knife, though.

Author: Robert Jordan

Synopsis: The Aes Sedai are divided, Rand has Mazrim Taim teaching men to channel, and the Forsaken are plotting against both Rand and each other. Nynaeve and Elayne go looking for a ter’angreal to change the endless drought weather, Egwene learns to love Gawyn Trakand and finds a surprise waiting for her in Salidar, Mat leads an army to divert Sammael’s attention, and Perrin and Faile rejoin Rand. With both Tower and rebel Aes Sedai courting his attention, Rand tries to keep a firm hand on his cities, his sanity, and his heart.

Notes: Over two million words in, this story has given me the feeling of friendship that most tales only offer after several re-reads: a warm familiarity for the world and characters that extends somewhat to the author. Nowadays, when one of the three ta'veren thinks for the nine hundredth time that the other two understand women better than he does, I roll my eyes. When thirteen Aes Sedai have Rand, and some of them are of the Black Ajah, there's no distracting me from what Robert Jordan will say next. When Gawyn is thunderstruck by Egwene’s admission, or when Mat foolishly confronts the new Amyrlin Seat, I grin and think “Nice scene. Well done.” There were some fun scenes in this book.

Intelligent interplay of male and female is something I'll almost always enjoy, and I've loved learning the difference between the handling of the halves of the One Power. Saidin, the male half, must be fought, wrestled, challenged at every moment; saidar, the female, must be surrendered to in order to gain control. It’s a fascinating depiction of the way male and female relate in general. I suspect, too, from a few hints about the way things used to be, that this concept is headed toward an alchemical resolution.

As for the boys and girls themselves, I love watching Perrin with Faile and Egwene with Gawyn. Rand’s dealings with Min and Elayne and Aviendha, on the other hand, make for an odd emotional ride. All three of the girls have won my sympathy to some extent, though none of them fully. Rand, who is in love with each of them and horrified at himself, has never yet lost that sympathy. All this leaves me reading in a very weird tangle of feelings. The Dragon Reborn and his three girlfriends aren’t going anywhere I’m likely to think well of, but we’ll see what happens.

The different cultures continue to interest me, and I find myself loving the Aiel despite their bloodthirsty tendencies. Ji’e’toh is an incredibly well-drawn study of honor and obligation. I thought about the concept all day one day—what it means, what it doesn’t mean, how it compares and contrasts to Christian and Western ideas.

Of course, there needs to be a whole glossary just for the Aiel words. Jordan surprised me with algai’d’siswai in this book. If he’s mentioned that before, I missed it, so I could only guess at its meaning. I complained to my husband about the word, and he just said “Be grateful he transliterated it,” which made me laugh. But what am I supposed to do with all those apostrophes? Pause? Glottal stop? Speak as if no interval exists, as with don’t and aren’t? I don’t know.

On the topic of words, let me just say that the names of the Forsaken were brilliantly chosen. Ishamael, Demandred, Lanfear, and Graendal strike me as particularly clever, and I’m curious about references that may be in the names of the rest.

Egwene’s new role provided some character interest; I also found it intriguing that her persuasion to be allowed to serve included stripping part way and washing the feet of the Sitters. I do love seeing a modern story hint at an older one, something Biblical or mythological or classical.

I stayed up past midnight finishing this book, and was rewarded with a startling amount of gore and way too many cliffhangers. That worries me about the rest of the books. But I intend to read on.

Recommendation: It’s fascinating, but expect to be cliffhung.

P.S. I've created a Wheel of Time label, so anyone who wishes can see all the reviews for this series at once. Hopefully that helps.


Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Minor Characters

This might be my favorite topic yet. Too bad I didn't start thinking about it earlier in the week; at this point, I'll never remember every beloved character from the supporting casts in fiction.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

For the sake of defining terms, I'll exclude protagonists and their primary love interests, sidekicks, antagonists, mentors, etc. Everyone else is fair game.

Unfortunately, this rules out Jane Bennet, who counts as a best friend. Shoot. I really wanted to include her.

1. Dobby the house-elf (The Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling). How can anyone help loving Dobby? If someone set up a gravestone in an English seaside garden, marking it "Here lies Dobby, a free elf", there'd be flowers and mismatched socks all over it. And I'd want to go add my own.

2. Philippa Gordon (Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery). Frivolous outside and golden-hearted in, Philippa's cheery friendship with Anne and her sweet romance with the Reverend Jonas make for some of the most delightful little moments in the Anne octet.

3. Puddleglum the Marsh-Wiggle (The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis). I'm an optimist, but Puddleglum—and Bill Mueller's class on Narnia—taught me the value of a good pessimist. Besides, I love the homely old creature's fiery statement of faith in the face of hypnotic lies.

4. Loveday Minette (The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge). She creeps into Maria's room every day and lays out the clothes for Maria's next adventure. Also, she raised a delightful son. She's delicate, sweet, pretty, and fairylike, and apart from a flaming temper over her love of the color pink, I wish I were more like her.

5. Old Parson (The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge). He brings the children into the church and welcomes animals like St. Francis; he plays the violin and prays with his whole heart; he speaks praise and reproof with equal freedom. Also, his name is Louis. :)

6. Mary and Diana Rivers (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte). Lovely, intelligent, and affectionate, they were sisters to Jane Eyre when she needed them. I like St. John, too, though he's sometimes awful.

7. Moiraine Sedai (The Wheel of Time books, Robert Jordan [I figured I couldn't count Nynaeve or Egwene]). She's one heck of a brave woman, and fairer to Rand than any other Aes Sedai has been.

8. Mrs. Gardiner (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen). More than anyone else in the family, she understands Elizabeth and Jane and does what she can to help them. Also, she has a good sense of humor. She could be my role model for good auntie-hood.

9. Elinor Loredan (The Inkheart books, Cornelia Funke). Besides being an amusing, stubborn old woman, she collects books. That's a habit I can admire.

10. The Luggage (The Discworld books, Terry Pratchett). All right, I'm starting to reach here. The Luggage is something of a monster. It's also hilarious.

This list is what happens when you try not to take too many from one book. I probably could have gotten ten just from Harry Potter. Let's see: Dobby, Lupin, Sirius, Lily, Neville, Molly Weasley, Arthur Weasley, Fred and George (they seem to go together), Hagrid, McGonagall. Yep. Too easy.

Who are some of your favorite supporting characters?


Good Story, Bad Writing

For any girl who grew up close to her mother and/or sisters, the novel Little Women is almost indispensable. A portrait of the lives and loves of four girls raised primarily under a mother's care, it's a tale told with little plot and much feeling. It's a literary idea without the literary prose, and while it draws criticism for various weaknesses—and possibly for not having much appeal to the male half of society—it captures the beauty of mother/daughter and sister relationships like no other book I've ever read.

It's not the only beloved story that gets criticized as poorly written. Stephenie Meyer's husband reputedly attempted to talk her out of getting published because of the potential for criticism, and few popular books have been more universally called out than her Twilight. Mike Duran recently gave a strongly critical (and fair, in my opinion) review of Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love, and got firestormed in his comments from fans of the book. Literary elites turned on Harry Potter en masse when it began its rise to wild fame.

No work of art is absolutely beyond criticism. Of course, 'bad writing' can mean anything from sloppy prose to awkward pacing to believability failures and more. Little Women sort of rambles through the lives of its characters, including many scenes that possessed neither conflict nor much bearing on the story arc. Twilight is the product of an outstanding concept and an immature writer. Redeeming Love falls into a lot of common CBA problems, such as attempting to be gritty and not at the same time, pasting modern thought into a historical setting, and uneven craft. The Harry Potter books have too many adverbs, a handful of inconsistencies, and some pacing issues, but overall are written in an uncluttered comic style that perfectly suits the need of the story—it just isn't Nabokov or Rushdie.

'Good story' can prove almost as difficult to define as 'bad writing', with personal preference often playing more of a role than most of us critics like to admit. All reviews are subjective, and may be affected by the reviewer's dislike of happy-go-lucky Cinderella endings, or insanely tragic Madama Butterfly ones; of literary aimlessness, or genre tropes; of a strongly masculine approach to storytelling, or a feminine.

However we define it, bad writing involves failure of art, which should pursue beauty. But should we ignore a powerful concept that's readable and reasonably executed if it's no more than that? Little Women may ramble and lack narrative tension in places, yet I'm richer for having read it. The same is true for Twilight, Redeeming Love, and especially Harry Potter.

Whatever the answer to that question, of course, aspiring writers have no excuse for trying to push novels they haven't worked up to the best of their ability. It's important to strive for beauty regardless of what we can find on the shelves at the local bookshop. That said, tales with glaring flaws will continue to get published, because someone saw past the weaknesses to something they loved.

What story do you love in spite of its failures? Can you envision a better version? Do you wish the publishing industry had forced it through more revisions, or that a different author had gotten the idea? What are your thoughts on this subject?


Watching the Sky and other stories

For those who don't know: Blogger went down hard yesterday, losing posts and comments and remaining out of service for most of the day. It deleted several comments on my blog, including Masha's latest in the Twilight conversation. But the comments did come to my inbox, and I will respond when I get a chance. So if you want to know why I love Twilight, keep an eye on that thread.

Also, I'm definitely going to back up my blog.

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As an amateur stargazer, I'd be remiss if I didn't link this beautiful interactive sky map. It covers the night sky for both northern and southern hemispheres, has both constellations and bright stars marked by name at the click of the info button, and lets you zoom way in.

Speaking of which... all this cloud cover has got to go away. I haven't been able to use my telescope in weeks.

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According to both the title and description of this list, it is guaranteed to make the reader feel old. After reading it, however, I do not feel old. Only one of the Backstreet Boys is younger than me. Take that, world.

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Writers' link of the week: John E McIntyre on "The craft so long to lerne." This contains some of the best straightforward advice for young writers anyone could give.

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Music of the week: The Oh Wells. They're relatively local. And apparently playing Bellingham tonight. Hmm.

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Funny of the week: I'm not quite this cynical, but this did make me laugh. Hey, I'm a writer: I'm totally unashamed of having imaginary friends.

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Lou is gone for the weekend. The whole weekend. I mostly feel like pushing out my lower lip and burying myself in novels, but I've got a house to clean and an accompaniment to work up for a friend's song and a manuscript to critique and two books to write and tomato plants to re-pot and I should really take a walk... and tomorrow night I might just rent Tangled and get ice cream because I think I'll need such things.

Happy weekend, everyone.


Currently Reading: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker's Guide, #1)It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so muchthe wheel, New York, wars and so onwhile all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water and have a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than manfor precisely the same reasons.

Author: Douglas Adams

Synopsis: When the Vogons come to destroy Earth, galactic hitchhiker Ford Prefect rescues his friend Arthur Dent and takes him on a wild tour of outer space.

Notes: I've read this to fill a big hole in my speculative-fiction education. And in the process, I have improved my understanding of a critique partner who would note R17 all over my manuscript, and who told me that referencing the star Betelgeuse might raise unwanted associations to Ford Prefect. I had to Google Ford Prefect then, but now the alien gentleman and I are officially acquainted. So we’ll raise Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters and toast Mr. Pond, who made me read this book.

It is downright hilarious, of course. Humor novels tend to exhaust me—the constant attempt to be funny gets wearing, whether or not it’s successful—but this story did make me laugh a lot. The introductory pages, especially.

Weirdly enough, I expected a lot more resolution than the book actually provided. I don’t know if this means I need to go read the sequels, or if I can just expect that the mice gave up and never finished fixing the very large problem they’d caused. Either way, it's rather uncomfortable to imagine that Earth does not exist. But it's apparently still possible to have a lot of fun and adventure among the stars.

The characters are fun and memorable: the Abbott-and-Costello-like Arthur and Ford, goofy Zaphod Beeblebrox, uncool nerdy Trillian, and Marvin the depressed robot. The events tumble one after another, all of them so unexpected as to leave the reader in a constant state of dropjaw. And in case anyone needs another reason to read it, it’s short.

Recommendation: Read if you want a laugh. I’ll be very surprised if you don’t get one.


Top Ten Tuesday: Literary Jerks, Cads, and Other Male Fiends

A few weeks ago, we listed the Top Ten Mean Girls. This week, it's the guys' turn. As with the girls, I'm going to divide the list into groups, according to whether or not the bad boys had any good at heart.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...

As the majority of literary villains seem to be male, I'm afraid the competition will be tough. And I'll probably forget a lot of very important ones.

Evil psychopaths:

1. The Adderhead (The Inkworld trilogy, Cornelia Funke). I'm not sure I've ever come across a fantasy villain depicted in nastier terms. Orpheus and Capricorn deserve mention, too, of course.

2. Achilles (Ender's Shadow and sequels, Orson Scott Card). One of the more chilling young men to wield a syringe full of poison amid the pages of fiction.

3. Voldemort (The Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling). Horcruxes. Also, he kills babies and unicorns. The red snake-eyes and high, cold laugh are just the outward manifestations of the monster.

4. Aro, Caius, and Marcus (The Twilight Saga, Stephenie Meyer). These guys make me very angry, which isn't the best response to have to three extremely powerful vampires.

Managed to find their good side, or at least something resembling one:

5. Severus Snape (The Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling). Snape put the 'hero' in 'Byronic hero', and none of us can help loving him a little, even if we can never quite get past how mean he was to Neville.

6. Monsieur Cocq de Noir (The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge). A poacher and all-around uncouth local thief, he strikes a hard bargain with Maria Merryweather and keeps his word when she wins.

7. Peter Wiggin (The Ender books, Orson Scott Card). I've never quite figured out how much of a good side Peter really had, but the last I saw of him, he seemed less of the cruel, blackhearted squirrel-torturer he was in Ender's Game.

At least were forced to respect their comeuppance:

8. Brian de Bois-Guilbert (Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott). After hounding Rebecca till his boss accuses her of bewitching him and she threatens to jump from a tower window, Brian dies of internal conflict. And while such a death certainly preserves the old Gothic sense of melodrama, it also suggests he had some desire to be heroic.

9. Rabadash the Ridiculous (The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis). Behaved like such a fool that Aslan turned him into a donkey. Upon restoration—in the sight of several thousand people—to his normal princely form, he had enough sense to obey Aslan so as to avoid becoming a donkey again.

In a class by himself:

10. Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger). There's just not much to like about this guy. He walks around cursing and demeaning the entire human race in his head, and as far as I know, he never gets over it. While no psychopath, he's also no Snape. Three words, young man: Get over yourself.


Weird Creative Rituals

It took me two hours of this afternoon to get a single three-hundred-word section written on one of my novels. Granted, that is desperately slow even for me, and the three hundred words contained an interaction that was quite challenging to portray believably. But an article by Mark McGuinness suggested to me today that in order to boost productivity, I just need to be more eccentric.

Apparently it's not enough to be a gangly, slightly awkward semi-recluse who enjoys Gregorian chant and techno songs about Harry Potter. I'm supposed to have something that directly affects my process while writing. But music distracts me, I refuse to smoke on principle as a vocalist, and I definitely will not be employing Victor Hugo's technique. I write beside the living room windows.

My only preparation for a day's writing work is to get up at my husband's alarm, shower, and do makeup and hair just as I did when I worked downtown. Whether that's eccentric, I can't say, but the morning rite keeps me from entirely losing my ability to differentiate between work and procrastination. And maybe from losing my sense of day and night as well.

Do you have a helpful creative ritual, eccentric or otherwise?


Mud-Wrestling Pigs and other stories

Reminder: If you read or write novels, and you want to help tornado and flood victims, check out the Help Write Now auction! If it wasn't for charity, I'd be very disappointed that Veronica Roth's Divergent package just went waaay out of my price range. :)

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Hail, Twilight fans and foes! If you enjoy discussing the merit of Meyer's bestselling vampire series from either perspective, check out this extensive conversation between Maria (who critiqued my book) and I. Maria has made some good points that I've conceded, and I think I've made a few that she's done likewise for, and we're still talking. Feel free to join in. I'm going to try to answer her most recent comments this afternoon, if I can get a chance.

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Congratulations to my good friend and critique partner Mr. Pond for getting himself published in a book of essays! Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment, a scholarly work on the world of unsettling fairy tales, is available in bookstores. Well done, sir!

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Maia has discovered how to get on top of the refrigerator. I guess the highest bookshelves are her final frontier.

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Ever since this past year's NaNoWriMo disaster, I've been awfully worried about my ability to complete the book and make it any good. On a burst of inspiration yesterday, I took out a packet of colored index cards and started cutting them up, labeling them with character names, roles, structural units, and potential scenes. I laid them out all over the coffee table. And I wish I'd shot a picture of the mayhem that ensued when Maia discovered I was playing with little scraps of paper....but now I have some outline, several pages written, and a lot more confidence.

I love these paper clips. And the pretty colors. I'm such a girl.

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Writers' link of the week: Jason Pinter on The 10 Commandments of Social Networking for Writers. The piece contains some of the best wisdom I've heard about social networking. Among the great thoughts, "Thou Shalt Not Engage in Flame Wars" includes the aphorism "Never wrestle in mud with a pig—you’ll just get dirty and the pig will enjoy it."

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Music of the week: My friend Jana linked this band on her blog recently, and I enjoyed their music so much that I had to share. This cover of the Beatles' Eleanor Rigby is beautiful. You can also go over to Jana's site and watch their Paper Hats, which I like even better.

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Funny of the week: As someone very fond of decent spelling, I laughed till I cried over these Facebook corrections. There's some strong language—where ignorance and Facebook are gathered together, profanity is in their midst—but oh, the responses are funny. Enjoy. H/T Kelly Sonnack.

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I'm off! To write, to clean house, to make dinner for my husband and get ready for a busy evening. Happy weekend, everyone!


Currently Reading: Matched

Matched (Matched, #1)Grandfather gave me poetry.

Of course. My great-grandmother. The Hundred Poems. I know without having to check on the school ports that this poem is not one of them. She took a great risk hiding this paper, and my grandfather and grandmother took a great risk in keeping it. What poems could be worth losing everything for?

The very first line stops me in my tracks and brings tears to my eyes and I don’t know why except that this one line speaks to me as nothing else ever has.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Author: Ally Condie

Synopsis: Cassia’s Society regulates everything from daily meals to date of death. Still, she’s always looked forward to the Matching banquet, where future spouses—matches generated from compatibility data—are revealed. To everyone’s surprise, she is Matched to her best friend, Xander. He’s good-natured, gently protective, and handsome, and she can’t believe her luck—until she discovers another face on her Match microcard. All at once, she’s faced with a choice. But choice, in the perfectly controlled Society, can mean the destruction of everything she knows and loves.

Notes: I’m going to give this book an generally positive review, so pardon me while I indulge in two small complaints: dystopia tends to be too horrific for my taste, and I detest love triangles.

But Ally Condie fills the corners of her chilling tale with beauty—and not just beauty itself, but the search for it, the yearning for its hope and meaning. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

The first chapter or two of Matched almost seem peaceful, lulling the reader into the security all Society members supposedly experience. Only after the Matching banquet, around the time that Cassia visits her grandfather, does the horror really begin to set in. Throughout the book, the reader wrestles with the good and evil sides of the seemingly perfect life, just as Cassia does.

Beauty comes in surprising places. The use of the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gentle into that good night...” gave me goosebumps and added a lot of depth to the story. Cassia’s grandfather deserves mention for the things he teaches her. And dislike for love triangles aside, this book had one of the loveliest, most unique developments of a romance that I’ve ever seen in a young adult novel.

Other relationships were also interesting. I honestly appreciate the existence of kindly-portrayed, non-naive family, especially parents, in a YA novel. Cassia's mother and father had an interesting dynamic going with their differing attitudes toward the Society's rules, and the grandfather is particularly compelling.

Cassia won my concern quickly, in part because I sympathized with her desire to please, to follow rules and fit in. Some may find her a little bland at the beginning, but it's hard to imagine a reader not caring about her by the end. She makes a slow but strong progression toward accepting risk for the sake of what is right and what she loves.

The setting could have been a little more vividly imagined, but it worked well nonetheless. I was especially fascinated by its nature. Too often the Big Bad Society in dystopia is based on some aberrant parody of religion. Matched sets up cold irreligious utilitarianism in all its understandable motives, and quietly champions human dignity—including the dignity of the aged and imperfect—and the value of beauty and creativity. I can do nothing less than cheer.

Recommendation: Read it when you wish your life were perfect. It’ll change your mind.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books that Came Recommended

...as opposed to books I picked up and flipped through by myself before buying or checking out.
Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...
This topic came with some difficulties, such as remembering who recommended what book to me, or whether anyone recommended the classics at all. I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, but did I read it thanks to one person's suggestion or the consensus of history? Who knows?

Here are a few that someone specifically recommended to me.

1. Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling). Thanks, Chris Knight and Michael Spencer. Thank you forever.

2. The Wheel of Time books (Robert Jordan). Thanks to MissPhotographerB for recommending them to me, and to Nate for recommending them to MissPhotographerB.

3. Ender’s Game and sequels (Orson Scott Card). Brandon was the first to say "You must read Ender's Game!" and I'm not sure how I got hold of Speaker for the Dead. Beth and Todd got me into the Bean series. I'm not finished with all of the sequels, but I do plan to read them.

4. The Twilight books (Stephenie Meyer). I just about guarantee that I would not have read this series had it not been for Leigh convincing me to listen to the first one with her and MissPhotographerB actually mailing her books to me.

5. Little White Horse (Elizabeth Goudge). Thanks, J.K. Rowling. (Her "I absolutely adored the Little White Horse" blurb definitely got my attention, though it's hard to imagine myself passing up a book with a unicorn on the cover.)

6. A Walk to Remember (Nicholas Sparks). Beth gave me this one. "You remind me so much of Jamie Sullivan!" is still one of my favorite compliments I've ever received (thanks, Jade!)

7. The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis). Thanks, Mom and Dad—or possibly Grandma or Uncle Ray—for giving these to me to read on the long drive from Dunedin, FL to Missoula, MT.

8. Matched (Ally Condie). Just read this on Arabella's recommendation, and loved it. Review coming Wednesday.

9. Alec Forbes of Howglen (George MacDonald). My parents read this to my sisters and I when we were very young, and I recently re-read it after hearing good things about it from Mr. Pond. I adore this story.

10. On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (Andrew Peterson). Thanks to Travis Prinzi, founder of The Hog's Head.

What great books have you read because someone recommended them to you?


Why Bother Writing Novels?

Before I begin today's topic, a quick note:

If you'd like to aid those affected by last week's tornadoes and floods, let me recommend Help Write Now, an auction put on by several members of the writing community. Some of those writers live in damaged or devastated areas. Proceeds benefit the Red Cross.

I'm donating a manuscript critique, and just may bid on some of the other items—some of which should appeal to writers, and others to readers. Want to help? Go on over and fill out their short-and-sweet donation form, and/or subscribe to the blog for auction news and items for bid.

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Being of the artistic personality and therefore clinically insecure, I spent some of this past week vacillating between the idea that I Suck and this question: Why bother writing novels, when there are so many in the world? The question could apply to keeping a blog, too. Not to mention creating poetry, art, musical composition, quilts, culinary presentation, dance, or anything else done more for beauty or expression or love of the work than for practical, measurable benefit.

Creation of beauty for its own sake is a deeply human and worthwhile process. Unfortunately, my response to that fact is sometimes along the lines of "Yes, but is my work beautiful enough to matter?!" Sometimes we need the silly personal reasons that keep us going when we think we're no good. Here are mine.

I write because:

...There are no brakes on the drive of an inborn writing tendency. I can't stop.

...The hunger for another good story grows with every one I read.

...Writing helps me process ideas and experiences better than almost anything else. And no big idea or experience is ever thoroughly processed until I've written my way through it.

...Words are just so beautiful when properly strung together.

...Other people's writings have built up my sanity and hope, and I want to pay that forward.

...My characters deserve to be known and loved, in my opinion (which is biased by motherly pride, of course).

...The pent-up nervous energy and emotion of the clinically insecure artist can really come in handy around an open Word document. Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it. :)

...and probably more reasons than I can think of now. My brain kept me awake till five AM and is now propped up on nothing but coffee.

Why do you write—or draw, or make music, or plant elaborate flower gardens, or otherwise create impractical beauty?