Thinking in Broken English and other stories

After a full four weeks of intensity, including an extended visit from the niece and nephews we hardly ever get to see, two family medical emergencies, a detail-critique that involves hunting down subtleties that are awfully hard to spot in the dozenth draft of a book, one week of being sick, a lot of insomniac nights, and... and I think that might be it, unless you count the near-constant rain... anyway, this week I'm having trouble forming complete sentences.

Yesterday, it hurt to concentrate on anything. In the half hour I had at the computer for revisions, I stared at one bulky sentence and considered throwing a tearful tantrum in frustration, as I couldn't figure out any way to divide it.

Fortunately, all I really had to do yesterday was ride in the car down to Bremerton, smile and spend time with family, and ride back. I brought a scene print-out to work on revising, notes for future blog-posts, and two novels on my Kindle. In six hours in the car, I read through the scene once and spent the rest of the time staring at the scenery, letting my mind settle.

As for the family visit, it was honestly very fun, and I only fell asleep in the rocking chair once. I think.

It all helped somewhat. Today, if I get a blog-post up and the house clean and dinner made, I'll count that as success. If I get half an hour at the piano, trying not to lose the finger flexibility I've gained in three months of practice, I'll count that as success covered in glory. If I get anything done on my book... no, no, I'm not even going to hope. It's there and waiting, if my mind wakes up and reaches for it.

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All right, I have never been a wild fan of the yarn bombing deal, but this bit of recent Bellingham fun is made of oh-so-much awesome:

Photo and yarn-bomb R2D2 by Sarah Rudder, whom I've actually met, and can therefore tell you that she's as awesome as her knitting. :)

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Since you've been moderately shortchanged on posts this month, and since I happened across these the other day: here's some desperately cute evidence of how a cautious human acquires a Resident Destroyer of Worlds. Destroyers start off life as pure adorable:

Click to expand, if your heart didn't immediately go all squishy with delight. Or if it did, and thereby set you yearning for a bigger picture.

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Writers' link of the week: In sympathy with all ye busy and ye stressed, here are two excellent reminders that it's OK to not do everything: Rachelle Gardner on recognizing your limits, and Nathan Bransford on a reasonable fear of noise.

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Music of the week: When I'm happy and I know it, I play techno or rock, but when I'm stressed—there are a whole range of options. Gregorian chant, some of the more soothing Romantic or Classical-era pieces, quiet piano and/or violin-based works, and any of the Celtic songstresses. I can't recall whether I've ever linked Enya—most of the time, I avoid the stuff that gets played on the radio—but she's a favorite, and here's one of my favorites of hers.

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Random amusement of the week: Hey, Christian Girl, based on the supremely awful and awkward Hey, Girl meme that's mostly centered around cheesy pictures of Ryan Gosling. (It is Ryan Gosling, right? OK, I seriously just had to Google that.)

So, some of these: AHAHAHA. I was quite the stereotypical Christian girl growing up—homeschooled and everything, unfortunately including backward—and my responses to this range from laughter at the occasional perfect imitations of the mindset to “strange... that one's almost appealing” to “yipes, man-as-sex-object photos mashed up with comments about modesty—this is a bit too ironic”, and back to AHAHAHA. Have fun.

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Blog-post done, dinner in the crock-pot... now if I can get the house clean...

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: The Hero and the Crown

The Hero and the Crown (Damar, #2)“I can still hunt and fish and ride,” she said. “But I miss the swordplay. I know you haven’t much spare time these days—” She hesitated, calculating which approach would be likeliest to provoke the response she desired. “And I know there’s no reason for it but—I’m big enough now I could carry one of the boys’ training swords. Would you—”

“Train you?” he said. He was afraid he knew where her thoughts were tending, although he tried to tell himself that this was no worse than teaching her to fish. He knew that even if he did grant her this it would do her no good; it didn’t matter that she was already a good rider, that she was, for whatever inbred or circumstantial reasons, less silly than any of the other court women; that he knew from teaching her other things that he could probably teach her to be a fair swordswoman. He knew that for her own sake he should not encourage her now.

The gods prevent her from asking me anything I must not give, he thought, and said aloud, “Very well.”

Author: Robin McKinley

Synopsis: Aerin is the king’s daughter, but her identity has always been doubted by those who believed her mother to be a witch. Living out of sight, introverted and fiercely independent, Aerin’s only companions are her nurse Teka, her cousin Tor, and her father’s injured war-horse, Talat. The loneliness provides her with opportunities, however—to learn swordplay, to rediscover an ancient dragon-fire repellent, and to prove herself worthy of a heritage more powerful than she or her country could have dreamed.

Notes: Winning reader sympathy for a brooding, often ill and depressed character can be challenging, but McKinley made her Aerin lovable from the first chapters. Throughout the entirety of Part One, which is mostly backstory—albeit perfectly good story—Aerin fights for every bit of esteem she gains, from readers or from her people. Fighting comes naturally to Aerin; she fights her paralysis, the suspicion around her birth, the snobbery of her cousins Galanna and Perlith, her horse’s injury, and dragons. She fights silently for the most part, but the reader sees the facts.

It helps, perhaps, that she is hated by two real toadies and loved by the eminently adorable Tor. The latter is the perfect sort of fantasy hero: not too unrealistic in his goodness or in his passion for the heroine, but just at the upper limits of both. Aerin occasionally dismisses his attention as the feeling “of a farmer’s son for his pet chicken”, but her failure to appreciate Tor’s interest is excusable in that it’s primarily a failure to appreciate herself.

Teka is a likable character as well, but Talat, the crippled war-horse, is the real charmer of the book. Vain and stubborn, he and Aerin form a particularly well-suited pair as they learn to work together and go on to dragon-hunting. The character development, in both Aerin and Talat, is superb. The worldbuilding, accomplished almost entirely through Aerin’s narrowly-seen perspective, is likewise fantastic; McKinley has a finely-tempered gift for creating both character and fantasy realm in stunning detail.

The only difficulty is that nearly all of this is contained in Part One.

In Part Two, the story changes. The great dragon fight is a natural (and expected) progression from the early events, but Luthe enters the story out of nowhere, disconnected from everything relative to the previous plot lines except for Aerin’s mother’s history. Events take on a dreamlike nature, and the villain's existence comes as even more of a surprise than blond, overconfident, mildly annoying Luthe's. The great cats and dogs may have symbolized something, but they too were unexpected additions that felt a little out of place.

The ensuing mage battle seemed a little hard to follow. It provided Aerin with the necessary answers and resolution about her birthright, but no one can accuse McKinley of taking the story in an entirely predictable direction, despite aspects of the ending.

It is possible—just possible—that the Luthe plot detour was meant to be symbolic. There were strong hints of it, in his healing Aerin from the dragon’s lies, in the relationship of mortality and immortality, and in the general retreat-like peace of his home. I’ve never heard it claimed that McKinley is a Christian, but I certainly would have bought into the imagery, whether placed by intent or by the influence of tradition, had it not been for one odd detail.

Spoilers follow—as does a content advisory, for those who wish to know.

While romance in stories is often oversimplified, and there’s both psychological potential and historical precedent for the concept of one person being in love with two people at once, McKinley’s handling of it is a bit startling. Neither Aerin nor Luthe have any scruples whatsoever about sleeping together—no thought for marriage even though marriage is the clear norm in Aerin's country, no concern over Tor's feelings, no worry over whether Aerin might get pregnant right before riding out to defend her people, nor even any first-time shyness. The casual sex took the life out of both romances, damaged reader respect and sympathy for Aerin, and degraded Luthe from "mildly annoying" to "jerk who takes advantage of his girlfriend."

The whole setup is explained with the idea of Aerin's having a twofold destiny—a fascinating idea, but one that this admittedly traditional reader would have found both more believable and more satisfying had sex not been treated as such an inconsequential event.

Spoilers ended.

Aside from the above difficulty, the book proved enjoyable overall, and the ending resolved mostly to satisfaction. Much of Part Two would probably come out clearer, and certainly less surprising, upon a re-read—and I may in fact decide to give it a re-read after The Blue Sword, which to my embarrassment I find that I should probably have read first.

Recommendation: Read it for a carefully-described, intensive, often beautiful look into one fantasy heroine’s life.


Top Ten Tuesday: Characters Who Remind Me of Myself and People I Know in Real Life

This topic is a bit dangerous. :) It's much too possible to offend real-life people who read your blog, either by listing them as similar to a flawed character, or by not listing them at all. Hence, a lot of these comparisons are going to be about me, because I'm reasonably certain not to take offense.

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

It turns out that when I think carefully about which fictional characters remind me most of myself, I come up with somewhat different answers than I've had on my About Page. Hmm.

1) Ron Weasley. While Harry's introspection, Hermione's penchant for rules, and Luna's daydreamy nature all come far more naturally to me than Ron's external bluster, Ron blends comic instincts and loyalty with insecurity and mild emotional instability in a way that describes my psychological makeup just a little too accurately for comfort. (The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling)

2) Heidi. Domestic little Heidi loves home so much that she's always a little unhappy and out of place when she's away from it. Me, too. (Heidi, Johanna Spyri)

3) Jane Bennet. Jane presumes that everyone in the world makes constant, conscientious efforts toward decency, and is unreasonably shocked every time she discovers some rogue who doesn't. I'm far too strong-willed to match her in other regards, but for good or for ill, I admit to sharing that one. (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen)

4. Min Farshaw. It took me a good three or four books to even tolerate Min, and I still find Egwene and Nynaeve far more lovable. For that matter, I sometimes even like Aviendha better. But emotionally, I see myself in a lot of Min's responses, and it doesn't hurt that I quickly developed a wholehearted and sometimes unreasonable adoration for Rand. Also, I like my breeches jeans. (The Wheel of Time books, Robert Jordan)

5. Konstantin Levin. Kostya is prone to throwing himself body and soul into anything he takes interest in, but not without constant uncertainty and self-doubt. It takes him forever to spot the answers that lie very obviously in front of his face, and he alternates between the wild artistic thrills of discovery and an almost unbearably painful confusion, even when things are going well for him. Zdrastvooyte, Konstantin Dmitrievich. Welcome to my life. (I don't know how to say that in Russian.) (Anna Karenina, Lev Tolstoy)

OK, that is more than enough about me.

If you want to know about the man I've loved and married, try this post. Of the characters named, he most resembles 6) Mr. Darcy in personality, though he is much too good-natured to have ever referred to me with the words "She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me." (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen)

Presuming my family doesn't mind me playing this game:

Gentle, wise, hardworking Dad, living with his strong-minded wife and daughters, always reminded me of 7a) Mr. March, whom I never envisioned with the problems of Bronson Alcott. And there's something sort of apropos about the fact that we text each other in 7b) Yoda-speak. (Little Women, Louisa May Alcott; the Star Wars films, George Lucas et. al.)

Mom sometimes puts me in mind of driven, perceptive 8a) Elizabeth Bennet, sometimes of 8b) Eowyn the beautiful fighter, and I'd be remiss if I left off 8c) Marmee March, who was to Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy very much as Mom is to the three of us. (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen; Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien; Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)

Sister Beth inherited much of the Lizzy Bennet personality along with the name, and in keeping with the March family theme, has a lot of 9b) Jo's devotion, independence, and bravery. (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen; Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)

Other Sister, who prefers not to be mentioned openly on the Internet, shares Jane Bennet's placid nature and 10b) Amy March's appeal and composure. (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen; Little Women, Louisa May Alcott)

Why, yes, I do sympathize with Meg March in many ways. Especially the Heidi side of me. And people wonder why I love Little Women so much. Haha.

I'm very curious: what fictional characters most remind you of yourself? Are there characters who put you in mind of someone you know? Do answer in the combox, or link to your Top Ten list.


Hearing Voices: The Artist and Criticism

I am not writing a conventional novel, and I think that the quality of the novel I write will derive precisely from the peculiarity or aloneness, if you will, of the experience I write from…In short, I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do otherwise.
~Flannery O'Connor

Receiving criticism is difficult. It has to be strained through the sieve of what we know about the critic - his taste, understanding, education; and especially, it has to be strained through what we know about our writing.

Criticism is the topic of the week, not only on the blogalectic, but among a group of writer friends with whom I share ideas (which includes both Masha and Mr. Pond.) It's a good topic for me right now, as I've just put my 2009 novel through another round of critique and am, once again, revising.

That story was my first novel since age nineteen, on account of which I've done immense amounts of learning on it. It has undergone thorough transfiguration since the original NaNoWriMo slapdash draft, though the characters, the basic structure, and even—in places—the voice are still mostly visible to me (perhaps only to me) in the original. I've had scenes and whole drafts read by family and friends, by other readers and other writers, and even by a couple of editors. Every one of them has had opinions on things that needed fixing. I've heard "It's already beautiful. Be very proud," but I've never heard "It's already perfect—don't change a word."

There's nothing like experience for teaching a writer how to deal with criticism. Beyond the basic requirements of manners (expressing gratitude, avoiding defensiveness, etc.), there are three secrets to the trade, two of which Masha already named:

1. Know your work.

The better handle you have on your own voice, on what you're trying to do with a piece, the less susceptible you will be to destructive criticism. Unfortunately, if there's any aspect of writing that is a mythic, inborn gift that can be polished but not taught, it's this ability to differentiate between protecting the rightful interests of your story and protecting an imaginative construction. That's as much about self-awareness as art.

2. Know your critic.

Understanding your reader's sympathies and levels of expertise will give you a general idea of where their critique will be most helpful, and where least. It's important, more so than it might seem, to know whether they're reading as writers or as readers, how well they understand the work of creating a novel, whether they're familiar with the genre and category of story you're writing, and—still more crucial—how well they get the way your mind works.

This matters because readers can make mistakes just as writers can. They may like your work for the wrong reasons and exhort you to take it in an unstable direction. They may give you suggestions based too heavily on what they like to read—or worse: what they like to write. They may be at that heady phase in their own artistic education where they know just enough to be dangerous. My own readers have been great, but even the best may occasionally offer an opinion that doesn't level with the structure of the work.

A more subtle, and perhaps more common, issue with criticism is the specific ideas readers often give for solving various problems. There's nothing inherently wrong with specific suggestions; I've made use of a good many myself, but I've also had to learn to handle them carefully. Writers must be able to consider not just the superficial merit of the suggestion, but the reason that suggestion was given. Sometimes, the underlying problem is better addressed with a different solution.

As for reader understanding of the writer's mind: it's good to have critics who strongly sympathize with you and critics who don't. Both will tell you unique things about how well your story comes across. Both can sometimes be downright dangerous. Intense responses, positive or negative, warrant cautious treatment—though it's helpful, as one friend noted, to have a few readers who provide warm and consistent affirmation. Writing, getting edited, and revising are lonely and emotionally draining processes, and as with the generality of life, it's nice to have someone who just loves you the way you are.

3. Know your own vulnerabilities.

It's entirely possible to kill your work, burn yourself out, damage all your critique relationships, or toss vital suggestions by failing to take your own reactions into account. We all love affirmation and respond with some natural degree of hurt and/or anger to criticism, but different personality types are prone to distinct weaknesses.

My own melancholic, analytical side frequently leaves me in paralyzing indecision over conflicting points of criticism, or over strong recommendations that clash with my own opinions. Similarly, my phlegmatic, people-pleasing side makes me compliant and adaptable, and I risk burning myself out by trying to change too much. Also, for whatever the pop psychology is worth, my highest-ranked 'love language' is affirmation, so I overreact to plain-featured editorial remarks that contain little effusive praise, imagining them as sharply negative when in fact they're relatively genial and light.These are all serious weaknesses, but simply being aware of them helps me face criticism with more philosophy.

It's crucial to know whether you naturally take criticism too seriously, or not seriously enough. To understand what critique does to you emotionally, and learn to differentiate that instinctive response from your artistic evaluation of the opinions given you.

In the end, as Masha says, "the critic can’t be allowed to take over... it isn’t his story to abandon or to save." On the other hand, none of us will become the best writers we can be, or anything like, without the critic. He improves us in ways we cannot improve alone. For the true artist, ever dissatisfied with himself and his work, that's more than sufficient motivation for going through the excruciating process of learning to accept and properly make use of critique.


Just Blame It on the Hobgoblins and other stories

Lou to Maia this morning: "Ah... did you decide to do some redecorating in the night?"

Maia: "I don't know what you're talking about. But if I had, it would be more innovative and aesthetic than anything you people come up with."

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Your garden-happy blogger got a bit of a sad shock this week when the dogwood tree—keep in mind that this is not a sweet little shrub, but a full-grown, bird-attracting shade tree—went from looking relatively healthy to showing itself entirely covered in anthracnose.

And I do mean entirely. Every branch from trunk to tip has affected leaves. Whether it's the comparatively mild spot anthracnose or the deadly dogwood anthracnose, I'm not sure. It may not matter, with this level of infection. "Cut off the affected areas, burn the leaves, and disinfect your pruning shears" is clearly not an option.

I fear the happiest possible ending I can get out of this is "Cut it down, have my little cry over it, and then plant a weeping willow."

In more cheerful gardening news, I splurged on a clematis vine this week.

Also, our little pink rose is absolutely loving not being choked out by whatever random bush-weed had it by the throat last year.

And I don't even know what to do with the potatoes. They're so healthy that I keep having to cut them back so they don't suffocate the blueberries.

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Writers' link of the week: An old Neil Gaiman response to a reader question about agents, mostly answered in thorough detail by Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Granted, this was seven years ago, but there's still plenty to be learned from it.

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Music of the week: A lovely Debussy violin sonata, which recommendation I'm shamelessly passing on from The Egotist's Club. Permit me also to recommend The Egotist's Club, one of my new favorite blogs to read. You'll find books, drinks, faith, linguistic flourishes—so many of the best things in life.

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Random amusement of the week: Better Book Titles (advisory: some of these are quite... adult.) Quality varies, but there are some real gems. Among my favorites are re-titled books by Edith Wharton, J.D. Salinger, and George R.R. Martin.

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It's four o'clock, and I'm off. The piano calls, and so does my book, which I am still happily and messily revising.

Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Moonraker's Bride

Moonraker's Bride“Soon they will be hungry. We shall all be hungry.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said impatiently. “None of you has gone hungry so far. At least, not very hungry. And there’s enough food for two days.”

“Where will you get food after that, Lu-tsi?”

I gave the only answer I could think of, the answer Miss Prothero had always given me whenever I asked such a question. “The Lord will provide,” I said confidently, and turned away to go down to the kitchen, thinking of what I would have to do that day in Chengfu, and hoping that at least the Lord would make sure I did not get caught while I was busy providing.

Author: Madeleine Brent

Synopsis: As China’s Boxer rebellion begins endangering “foreign devils,” orphaned missionary kid Lucy Waring returns to England with a secret: just before departure, she was secretly married to an English prisoner named Nick Sabine, who was scheduled for execution the day after the wedding. When Lucy is tracked, threatened, and her rooms ransacked, however, she can’t help wondering—did Nick really die, or is he trying to kill her? And if she was truly widowed, who wants her dead?

Notes: The historical romance genre has never been a particular favorite of mine, but that may be because I’ve read the wrong type (i.e., too many bonnets.) Madeleine Brent—otherwise known as Peter O’Donnell, British mystery writer—caught my attention right away with teenage Lucy and her struggling mission home in China. This is the first Brent/O’Donnell novel I’ve read, but it shouldn’t be the last.

Lucy Waring is a unique heroine: English, but orphaned so young in China that she grew up generally thinking of herself as Chinese. With the head missionary ill and all support cut off, Lucy finds herself responsible for the abandoned children who live at the mission, and she’s absorbed enough of the culture to wonder, pragmatically, why the missionary would never sell off the grown girls as concubines when they usually ended up as such anyway. Lucy's English nature asserts itself only in musical taste and in wondering how Chinese parents—usually fathers—abandon baby girls to die.

Of course, an English stranger shows up, and the hardworking, Chinese-thinking Lucy finds herself plunged into a classic European Gothic plot. The juxtaposition makes for some amusing moments, especially when she returns to her native country and must live with the all-too-easily shockable gentry. Riddles and mysterious old manors baffle her, as do the restrictive rules and clothing; wild coincidences surprise but hardly faze her, and she works her way out of difficulty after difficulty with naive but effective logic. All the while, of course, she wonders again and again about the stranger she married: his roughness, his secrets, his one kindness, and “the laughing devils in his eyes.”

I suppose it’s all predictable enough, but I’ve never been the predicting type, and the absurd old-fashioned foreshadowing of the “Little did I know” type had the intended effect of keeping me turning pages when I probably should have been doing other things. It’s outdated stylistically, but it works perfectly well.

I'm not schooled enough in the subtleties of various prejudices to speak much of how well the book would hold up to modern standards of multicultural portrayal. Brent is writing about the rural, uneducated China of more than a hundred years ago, and doing so in the early seventies. The reader raised in the Christian-influenced West will be horrified by the Chinese practices of infanticide and cruel corporal punishment, but will also sympathize with Lucy against the English gentry's arrogant demeaning of the ways of the poor. Whether the English had any right to the "tiger's eyes" lost in a poverty-stricken country is probably a fair question, but "finders keepers" has been around for a while, and the wealthy, daring Englishman of more than a hundred years ago would almost certainly have presumed such a right.

As with most romances, historical or otherwise, the ending was unhesitatingly satisfactory. The book was a pleasant read overall, if hyper-dramatic in the fashion of old Gothic mysteries, and the heroine is particularly intriguing as she's both mentally independent and emotionally artless, untouched by feminism. Her story makes a good beach or sick-day companion, and the rest of the Brent novels seem likely to follow suit.

Recommendation: Read it for interest, relaxation, and a heroine with an uncommon perspective.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my Summer Reading List

Now, this is a straightforward question. Between the great box of books Arabella gave me, and several requests in at the library, and the pressing need to read all those fantasy classics that I haven't gotten around to, like the Belgariad and the Shannara books—and on top of that, the master to-read list which, like many undersea creatures, never stops growing—the only difficulty is guessing in advance which books I'll get to this summer.

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

Here are some that are likely to be at the top, however:

1. Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale. This sequel to Princess Academy is coming in August! I can't miss this.

2. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. A Sleeping Beauty retelling, and as I love retold fairy tales, I'm excited to read it.

3. The Young Unicorns by Madeleine L’Engle. I'd never even heard of this one till Arabella brought it over, but I don't often turn down a book with unicorns in the title.

4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. On request at the library, just in case I happen to see the movie—I'd like to have read the book first.

5. A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson. It's long past time I got acquainted with Ibbotson.

6. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. One of the fantasy classics on my to-read list, also on request at the library.

7. Insurgent by Veronica Roth. Much as I'm ready to be done with bleak, hyper-traumatic tales of the future, I can't escape dystopia entirely this summer. This series is one of a few I'm willing to read.

8. Finding Angel by Kat Heckenbach. An independently published (not self-published) young adult fantasy, this looks intriguing, and I'm interested in reading some indie things anyway. Double win.

9. The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. There's always room on my reading list for McKinley.

10. Fantasy classic choice based on pure whim. The mood of the moment will determine whether I choose Eddings, Brooks, Marillier, Lackey, McCaffrey, or another. I only feel like half a proper fantasy fan without having read something by these people.

What do you plan to read this summer?


Some Little Questions

Yes, I titled that after an old favorite Strong Bad email episode. Enjoy.

Masha, being over-busy this week, gave us a few short questions to work with, suggesting writers who read the blogalectic also feel free to answer (which you're welcome to do on your own blogs or in the comments. Do pop into the combox and link to yourself if you answer on your own blog. I'd love the chance to read it.)

These are important questions, but also the sort of thing that every writer kind of knows about themselves. It's so subconscious, of course, that it's perfectly possible to forget something in any given Q&A session, but I'll do my best.

When do you do most of your writing?

That depends on what you mean by writing. Most of my blog prep is done in mornings and on weekends. Fiction writing tends to happen in the afternoons and evenings, particularly late evenings, and I'll often work well into the night. I prefer to get deadline-driven projects, whether or not they involve writing, out of the way early in the day.

What encourages you?

Affirmation. :) But since Masha's answers suggest that she's primarily referring to things that encourage us to get writing and keep writing:

Coffee. Music that relates well to story, like Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade or Holst's Planets or various music from video games, movies, some operas and oratorios, etc. Reading a book that's so beautifully written that at the end, all I can do is think "I have to write like this, now."

What distracts you from your work?

"The Internet" sounded like a cop-out answer, or at least a Captain Obvious one, so:

Exhaustion. Disagreeable politics popping up in Facebook or Google Reader. Suspenseful books that I haven't finished reading. Wanting everything else done first.

What is your purpose in writing?

I like Masha's answer, wherein she states that she's "always trying to create and promote a culture of beauty". That's a lot less dull than my own answer, which is something like "...it's just what I do."

What authors inspire your choice of theme and direction?

This question could have a blog post all to its excellent little self. The short explanation: C.S. Lewis, for light; J.R.R. Tolkien, for subtlety and glory; J.K. Rowling, for the cardinal virtues; Orson Scott Card, for wisdom and humanity; Jane Austen, for humanity and humor; Robert Jordan, for the details.

What authors inspire you stylistically?

Again, in short: Lewis, for his combination of artistry and simplicity; Orson Scott Card, for his empathy; Jane Austen, for the wit in her every turn of phrase; G.K. Chesterton, for his sheer joy in the making of English prose. That's the first tier. The second tier includes Shannon Hale's evocative descriptions, some of Robin McKinley's otherworldly phrasing, Neil Gaiman's polished clarity, Lucy Maud Montgomery's poetic sense of place, Charlotte Brontë's liminality, and plenty of others.

Notice that I haven't suggested that I equal any of these people. But they're the proverbial stars I'm shooting for.

What is one thing you wish you could accomplish as a writer?

The same thing that my favorite books have done for me. Success, for me, comes any time someone reads my work and finds a little happiness, a little inspiration, some new growth or understanding.


The Resident Destroyer and other stories

Maia's exploit of the week: a two-AM adventure of unknown origin, which resulted in her knocking over a heavy crystal vase that I'd tucked tightly into a corner on purpose to keep her from crawling behind it. Said vase fell off the built-in cabinets, broke a couple of leaves off the palm tree, and put a dent in the wood floor.

Miraculously enough, the vase survived intact. Also miraculously—and probably fortunately for Maia—I slept right through the whole commotion, including Lou getting up to rescue the vase and scold the culprit.

Remember when the decorations on our built-in cabinets looked like this?:

Maia, all by herself, has reduced them to this:

That lamp has been upside down on the floor, too, which didn't do it any favors.
It currently has no bulb in it.
The vase is now atop the refrigerator. The worst she can do there is knock it over. And here's your picture of the resident destroyer herself, on another shelf from which she's mostly eliminated decorations:

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Running errands yesterday, I chanced upon a few crates of roses marked Clearance. I came home with two for a total of $9, and both of them are now adorning the front of the house.

Along with the pretty hanging basket my in-laws gave us.

Also lovely just now: this peony.

And these... blue things. I have a hard time resisting strongly blue flowers.

And yes, I do need to weed around them. Again.
 This Egyptian walking onion is rather stately.

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Awkward moment of the week: when the department store doesn't have the fragrance mist you bought last time, so you spray a little bit of just about everything else they have on various fingers and parts of your arm—and then, as the scent combination gets overwhelming, you realize that you've still got half an hour of shopping in a crowded store, and you're afraid to get within ten feet of anyone.

Fortunately, I found one I liked. Also fortunately, I didn't try on the vanilla.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: Every blogger who likes writing, or stories, or Pixar, has linked Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats' twenty-two tweets on storytelling (aggregated here by io9) in the last few days. It's my turn. I'm tempted to print this out and hang it on the wall beside the couch, where I do most of my writing.

* * *

Music of the week: Bach, with some excellent solo work by German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff.

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Random amusement of the week: Leah Petersen, posting at Bryan Thomas Schmidt's site, gives us some personality analysis based on which punctuation mark we tend to overuse. I probably identify most strongly with Comma—though I probably underuse commas—and Question Mark, though how one overuses the latter I couldn't say; it seems to me that a sentence is either interrogative, or not.

What I actually tend to overuse are em dashes. Make of that what you will.

* * *

And now, as I've got just four hours to have lunch, clean the house, practice the piano, and get some writing work in, I'd better be off. Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Stork

Stork (Stork, #1)Penny hitched her backpack up over her shoulder. “I couldn’t help but notice a little tension between you and Jack.”

“Oh. That.”


“He delivered some apples to my afi’s store last night. We shared opinions on topics ranging from evolution to economics to progress in the form of bulldozing Main Street. Needless to say, we didn’t agree. I was for and he was against. I guess I rubbed him the wrong way.”

That summed it up nicely: I’d managed to alienate both the monarchy and the peasantry. We stopped at the intersection of the school’s north and south wings. Penny waved and headed in the opposite direction. I watched her walk away, wondering what she thought of me. Acquaintances for only two hours, and the only concrete things she knew about me were that the school king was blowing me random kisses and that I was in favor of leveling their town. I just hoped I hadn’t scared her off; I really needed a friend, and should topiary hair and woolly vests be part of the package, so be it.

Author: Wendy Delsol

Synopsis: Displaced from Los Angeles to a traditionally Icelandic town in Minnesota, teenage Katla Leblanc finds herself battling not only small-town priorities and new-girl difficulties, but magic. She’s quickly inducted into a secret society of Stork ladies who, by dream and symbol, choose the mothers for souls needing to be born. To add to her troubles, not all of the Storks like having her around—and neither does popular, threatening Wade—and neither, apparently, does the also-magical Jack Snjosson, who shares a bit of history with her that everyone except her remembers. When she starts getting caught in deadly situation after deadly situation, Katla isn’t sure who to suspect or how to defend herself, much less which potential mother ought to have the baby girl who comes to her in dreams.

Notes: Delsol’s melding of Norse mythology with a quirky, fashion-conscious teenage voice is a quick and pleasant read. Despite the fact that quirky teen voices can be a touch headache-inducing at times, Katla comes off likable, and her alternating humor and sadness make her very sympathetic.

For a mild teen paranormal fantasy, it’s quite enjoyable. Worldbuilding, character development, plot and romance are all handled rather lightly, but Katla is engaging enough to carry the tale, and it never gets dull.

It seems to fall somewhere between attempting seriousness and the slightly zany, however. The villain, like the hero, is a tad too big and archetypal for the britches he’s cast in. Plot points felt random at times, and the smaller ones were left unresolved as often as not. The fourth chair in Kat’s dream is still a niggling mystery to me; I spent half the book speculating on it, and not only did it never get clarified, but Kat’s relevant lie didn’t seem to make any final difference to the outcome. Granted, there’s a sequel out and a third in the works, so perhaps some of the stray threads will get tied up therein.

The hero turned out to be the dream-guy sort who comes off rather more believable in an epic fantasy setting than in modern high school. His traditional, hardworking upbringing is the one thing that saves him from seeming entirely implausible. I’ve got to admit, though, that he’s lovable. Aspects of Penny’s behavior are difficult to comprehend, however, even under the guise of “Minnesota nice.” The various Frus have some interest and uncertainty about them, and Kat’s parents were comprehensibly flawed and decent at the same time.

Parents may wish to be advised that there's a fair amount of extramarital sexual activity going on in this book, and that Kat's (European) father lets her drink. Kat, however, is not sexually involved thus far, and she regrets her one overuse of alcohol.

As the end of the book approached, it became very clear that there weren’t enough remaining pages for full resolution. That said, more of the story got wrapped up than expected, and Delsol spared us the terrifying cliffhanger ending that so many trilogy- and series-writers use to keep interest going. As for myself, I was happy enough with the tale and the ending to come away with some interest in the sequels.

Recommendation: Read it for a fun, easygoing take on the modern-day-meets-mythology meme.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Read while You're Sick

Technically, today's topic is Books I'd Recommend As Good Beach Reads, but I've already done that one. Since I've been down with a cold for a week, however, and since head colds, like the beach, generally demand uncomplicated reading material, I figured the matter of what to read when sick deserved its own list.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...
Perhaps this will differ from reader to reader and from cold to flu bug, but when I'm feeling really awful, I shamelessly choose books that won't ask much of me. This means that a) they won't test my reading comprehension with mind-bending concepts or overly intricate prose or a lot of new vocabulary, b) they are unlikely to prove irritating or unsettling, and c) I can count on a happy ending.

With those qualifications in mind, then:

1. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. Mystery, romance, heroism, fashion, simplicity. It's a fantastic read and won't let you down.

2. P.G. Wodehouse—anything by him, I suppose, if I may judge entirely by Psmith in the City. Lots of humor, and laughter is supposed to be good for the health.

3. Any Lord Peter Wimsey book, by Dorothy Sayers. For the same basic reasons as the Wodehouse recommendation, plus the fact that Lord Peter is just delightful.

4. Moonraker's Bride by Madeleine Brent. Historical romance with a Gothic flair and an absurdly capable, wonderful heroine. If the rest of Brent's books are as relaxing and intriguing as this one, I recommend them, too. This was one of Arabella's offerings, so I actually read it during this cold. Review coming soon.

5. Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls. Hilarious, old-fashioned, with just a touch of the mystical—rather like his better known work, Where the Red Fern Grows, but with a happy ending this time. Five stars.

6. The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I also loved The Secret Garden and liked Little Lord Fauntleroy, but this was always my favorite. Sara was a childhood hero of mine, and I've never given her up.

7. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Kid lit can be particularly enjoyable when you're sick or tired or just needing a break. I keep forgetting that I recently bought a copy of this and need to read it, as I haven't since childhood.

8. Anything by Jane Austen. Yes, Austen can make you think, and yes, you need to be pre-accustomed to the phrasing and sometimes the spelling of Regency England, but Austen is my go-to girl when I need an optimistic read with lots of laughter.

9. Any of Patricia St. John's works. Most of them are for children, and all of them are quick, easy reads. They're among the few works of categorical Christian fiction that I don't hesitate to recommend. My favorites are If You Love Me (her one adult novel) and Star of Light.

10. Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. It's one of those over-dramatic old romances, but a thoroughly delightful one. Porter makes the Limberlost a place you'll want to visit.

What books do you read when you're under the weather?


The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Knowing and Believing in Symbols

“You slowly peeled me out of time; 
I swayingly stepped into it
and yielded after subtle fights:
but now your darkling presence grieves
your gentle victory.

You conquered me and know me not.”

Symbols are powerful, and now, living in a world that too often fails to appreciate them, we who write with them, need to write with love and understanding. Need to absorb their darkness and their light in order to make sense of them. In order to share them with the world.

Belief in fairies, as Mr. Pond noted last week and both Masha and I subsequently quoted, is not "the comforting thing J.M. Barrie pretended it was." He meant, generally speaking, that the supernatural is not the cutesy, cuddly, kid-friendly side of existence. Even Tinkerbell was dangerous, but she holds nothing on the fair folk of legend with their enchantments and their changelings and their tithes to hell. And the fair folk have nothing on the gods.

But for the mind schooled in the West, belief in the supernatural is difficult merely by means of being unpopular—or rather, while admittedly popular in that there are comparatively few true atheists, it's unpopular in that society considers it bad form to speak much of belief or let it inform your understanding of public principle. Humans like to be liked and approved, and that makes it hard, sincerely hard, to hold to any defined belief, much less to speak of it.

Masha continues, this week, to emphasize the importance of belief:
Belief, a relationship with the symbols, is something that allows us to see them as living, changing, growing things; images with deep roots; and that understanding is the place from which to pull the nuance of meaning, without either over-extending the symbol or misrepresenting it entirely.... We’re a jaded lot, and while we may love the old tales, too often we look at them with eyes unused to mystery.
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what Masha's asking of us, but I can at least elucidate one person's relationship to symbol. As an artist, I have a responsibility to know the tools of my trade. I write fairy tales and fantasies, in which are tangled bits of astrology and pagan myths and alchemy and other ancient magic-related things, all of which I must attempt to understand before I can use them. Yet I, as a Christian, believe this:
All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.—Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116
and this:
Catholic theology defines magic as the art of performing actions beyond the power of man with the aid of powers other than the Divine, and condemns it and any attempt at it as a grievous sin against the virtue of religion, because all magical performances, if undertaken seriously, are based on the expectation of interference by demons or lost souls.... The Catholic Church admits in principle the possibility of interference in the course of nature by spirits other than God, whether good or evil, but never without God's permission.—The Catholic Encyclopedia, Occult Art, Occultism
Neither of these, obviously, has anything good to say about astrology or anything else remotely magical. (And yes, I did try to come up with a Biblical reference, but in my getting-over-a-cold brain fog, couldn't come up with any clear and extensive statement that wasn't a Levitical admonition to stone all practitioners.)

To say that I believe in my symbols is not accurate, then, in the scientific sense. St. Thomas Aquinas may or may not have practiced alchemy, and Martin Luther apparently approved it, but I do not think that what frankly sounds like dangerous meddling with metals and solvents is a trustworthy path to purification of the soul. I do, however, generally believe in the cyclical path of transformation that involves a period of breaking, followed by one of cleansing, and one of renewing. It makes a great plot structure, too.

At this point it's probably best to interject a disclaimer: I generally accept the likelihood of there being some natural virtue in the herbalist of old, in the martial arts and yoga, in acupuncture and the mind-boggling things chiropractors sometimes do, and the like. In such cases, it's often difficult to separate the superstition from the real value, and the relationship between some of these practices and the Church is complex (as exemplified by this somewhat long but interesting document on Eastern forms of prayer). The Church, though, is certainly not as quick as the rationalist to treat it all as useless myth.

On the other hand, I doubt very much you'll get anything better than the broken clock principle from your newspaper's horoscope page. But I do believe this:
"And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years..."—Genesis 1:14
and this:
"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.' "—Matthew 2:1-2
What do those things mean, exactly? Some of it's a mystery, and I'm all right with that. But the Scriptures weren't afraid to speak of it, weren't afraid even to underline an occult practice as a way which, once at least, led to the worship of the Christ.

Twelve hundred years later, the bishops and artisans of Siena weren't afraid to carve Hermes Trismegistus into the magnificent floors of the duomo (cathedral), alongside depictions of Absalom hanging by his hair, the slaughter of the innocents, and the Rota Fortunae.

I could go on talking, I suppose, but G.K. Chesterton always says it better.
There is one broad fact about the relations of Christianity and Paganism which is so simple that many will smile at it, but which is so important that all moderns forget it. The primary fact about Christianity and Paganism is that one came after the other. Mr. Lowes Dickinson speaks of them as if they were parallel ideals—even speaks as if Paganism were the newer of the two, and the more fitted for a new age. He suggests that the Pagan ideal will be the ultimate good of man; but if that is so, we must at least ask with more curiosity than he allows for, why it was that man actually found his ultimate good on earth under the stars, and threw it away again....

My objection to Mr. Lowes Dickinson and the reassertors of the pagan ideal is, then, this. I accuse them of ignoring definite human discoveries in the moral world, discoveries as definite, though not as material, as the discovery of the circulation of the blood.... If he likes, let him ignore these great historic mysteries—the mystery of charity, the mystery of chivalry, the mystery of faith. If he likes, let him ignore the plough or the printing-press. But if we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion we shall end—where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction. I mean that we shall end in Christianity.—Heretics, Ch. 12


Routine Disorder and other stories

No, if you're wondering, I have not given up on Top Ten Tuesdays, despite my three-weeks-running failure to participate. The last two weeks have just not played nice with my usual routine. It's been difficult to keep track of what day it is, let alone of what things have to be done on the given days. Being sick all this week has not helped. And none of the last few Top Ten questions have been easy enough to dash off in half an hour.

Theoretically, next week should be sane.

* * *

You wouldn't think it would be hard to grow zucchini, but out of ten seeds planted, thus far one has come up:

(no, all ten weren't planted in this four-pack pot)
But the roses have started blooming!

...as have the poppies:

...and the peonies.

More roses!

It's rained all week, which... at least it was the week I was sick. Here's hoping for a sunny weekend.

* * *

Gratuitous cat picture, snapped over the top of my computer just now:

One of Maia's favorite pastimes: hanging out with Lou while he works.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: As someone who has no problem whatsoever spending twelve hours a day at the computer, here's Jennifer Hubbard on The Walking Writer. Honestly, the general idea behind this piece is one of the reasons I have a garden. Anything to—well, honestly, to get my butt out of the chair occasionally.

* * *

Music and random amusement of the week: OK, this is not actually music. But I've been thoroughly enjoying the Lizzie Bennet Diaries on YouTube. It's a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, done entirely in vlogs, and the acting and scripting are really well done. Best of all, it's four-minute videos uploaded twice a week, which means that even a snob like me who never has time for television can make time to watch it. And I have, oh yes.

No guarantees that the attitudes toward marriage will be of Austen's caliber. Or anything like. That disclaimer aside—this is just too much fun to not link.

Full (though not yet complete; the series is far from finished) playlist here.

* * *

Of course, if you really want some music, there's always Mozart's Voi che sapete from La nozze di Figaro, which melody you may remember Lizzy singing in the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle version of Pride and Prejudice (otherwise known as The Best Adaptation Ever).

* * *

If you're like me, and you were prevented from seeing the Venus transit by heavy cloud cover—sheesh, it's hard being a stargazer in the Pacific Northwest—here's a lovely NASA video of it.

And now, happy weekend! To all of you.


Currently Reading: The Night Circus

The Night Circus“Can your illusions be viewed from all angles?”

Celia smiles. “You are looking for someone who can perform in the midst of a crowd?” she asks Chandresh. He nods. “I see,” Celia says. Then, so swiftly she appears not to move, she picks up her jacket from the stage and flings it out over the seats where, instead of tumbling down, it swoops up, folding into itself. In the blink of an eye folds of silk are glossy black feathers, large beating wings, and it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when it is fully raven and no longer cloth. The raven swoops over the red velvet seats and up into the balcony where it flies in curious circles.

“Impressive,” Mme. Padva says.

Author: Erin Morgenstern

Synopsis: Celia is the gifted daughter of a well-known magician. Marco is an orphan adopted by a rival magician for the purpose of being pitted against Celia in magical competition. The Circus becomes their forum, with each of them outdoing the other in feats. But the competition is more dangerous than either of them could have imagined, and every member of the circus is caught up in its precarious state of enchantment.

When people start dying, Marco and Celia must face the fact that the Circus is slipping beyond their control—as well as their final challenge: neither can bear living without the other, but only one may survive the game.

Notes: Quality worldbuilding comes at a lot of levels. Good and even great are relatively common in speculative fiction, but it’s something else again to find outstanding—a lavish, startling, sweep-you-up-in-magic depiction of scene and setting. Morgenstern writes with the mystique of the stage magician, revealing extraordinary things with precise timing, with swathes of glitz and color bursting out of darkness. The result is honestly one of the most vivid appeals to the imagination I’ve ever come across.

The author opens the circus directly to the reader through brief scenes in second-person point of view, demonstrating one of the rare ways that particular narrative mode can be made bearable. The rest of the book is in the unusual combination of third person and present tense, e.g. "...she picks up her jacket from the stage"; a setup that provides imminence alongside the necessary distance for mystery. Here and there, that combination became a touch confusing, as the mind naturally defaults to past tense whenever past events must be described. The non-chronological time progression occasionally made for similar difficulties. I found the present tense far less annoying when not paired with first person, however.

The text is pure elegance, with a classic, turn-of-the-last-century feel, a number of quotable lines, and a handful of references to Greek, Latin and French. The circus, for instance, bears the name Le Cirque des Rêves—the circus of dreams. The primary characters are often likewise very elegant in the old style: beautiful, poised Celia; handsome Marco, always hovering in the shadows; Tsukiko the contortionist, social genius Chandresh, reveur Herr Thiessen. Though the story does take place behind the scenes at a circus, it’s less a gritty tale of the carnival underworld and more the classy drama of old black-and-white films.

Old elegance can warrant its own set of advisories, however, which I might as well get out of the way. Tarot card reading underwrites parts of the plot, and there’s a general claim that anyone can learn spells and charms, which smacks a little more of charlatans and neopaganism and a little less of Harry Potter. Along with dashes of innuendo, there’s an unmarried sex scene designed to be romantically culminating; it’s brief and as tastefully described as such a thing can be, but it is what it is. Also, Celia’s father is physically abusive, which may prove a difficult experience for some readers. Finally, there are a (very) few uses of the sort of swear words that get a movie an R-rating.

The book eclipses its few weaknesses, however. Even the items mentioned in the above advisories are small parts of a tightly-written, nearly four-hundred-page story. The mood is exquisite; the characters are interesting and often lovable; the plot is carefully spun and engrossing.

The ending, however, is splendid. To say much at all would be to spoil it; I’ll limit myself to two brief notes. First, there's some interesting commentary on story itself. Second, in the final pages I thought of Tolkien and his description of eucatastrophe—the “sudden joyous turn”.

If that doesn’t tempt you to read the book, I don’t know what will.

Recommendation: Read it for the delight of being caught up into a dazzling, haunting, dreamlike world—the sort of place you won’t want to leave.


To Dream in Brilliant Colors: The Author and Belief

“..the darkness holds it all in: 
figures and flames, beasts and me,
        whatever it may catch...

It is possible there might
     be moving a power right next to me

I believe in nights.”

“What do I ask of real writers, living and creating outside the bounds of my imagination? Simply that we who deal in fairy tales ought to believe in them.”

"...belief in fairies is certainly not the comforting thing J.M. Barrie pretended it was."
~Mr. Pond

This last month, I spent part of book club making an impassioned, almost tearful argument against the treatment of conversion stories as unequivocal good. I mention this because the Enlightenment, at least in the popular narrative, is one giant conversion story after the standard fashion, which involves total rejection of former things: "First we were superstitious [and, some would add, religious]. Then we discovered science. Now we know that we are right and the medievals were wrong, and therefore science is all Good with a capital G and unverifiable belief is all sketchy if not stupid if not evil."

Thus saith the modern. And fantasy literature, or accepted fantastical or mythical elements in otherwise ordinary fiction, is ordered against the arrogance inherent in that conversion story, if not aspects of the Enlightenment itself.

Masha recommends we set ourselves to knowing and, where possible, believing in the auld ways:
Read Bulfinch's by all means but don’t start there, or end there. Listen to old tales, live the myths. Go out hunting the fern flower on St. John’s eve, bury statues in the yard, count crows, light candles, and feel the eyes of the unseen watching as you build them up with words. Don’t sacrifice dreams for responsibility and don’t attempt to confine your miracles to the written word. And don't write to escape the mundane, write to color it with the magic you see.
She clarifies this in an earlier paragraph:
I don’t insist that we believe in everything we create, in the literal sense - or I would never write, too afraid I'd call up some malevolent being - but we should still believe in mysteries.
Mr. Pond rejoined us with a few brief words this week, stating that "I’ve always felt that there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of" and pointing us to a startling connection between a story he wrote and a real-life personage he'd never heard of. The story is intriguing, and I sympathize completely with the statement.

It's true, of course, that there are, and long have been, great fantasists who are atheists. While I've not read Martin or Pullman, the latter of whom is said to be very good except for letting his anti-religious sentiments get in the way, I've read Miéville and Pratchett, and they're both quite brilliant. But then, atheism, so long as it is not united to hard-core materialism, does not necessarily preclude an openness to mystery. Agnosticism certainly does not.

I do believe that a love of mystery and the supernatural are the seeds of good fantasy, generally if not universally. Love may not mean belief in, at least not superficially—but then, I can't really speak for the atheist. By nature or by grace, I am very, very religious, and while I sympathize with agnosticism, my tendency is toward a strongly spiritual uncertainty that would probably have ended up in vague New Ageism or neopaganism if it hadn't been for the tale of the Christ. Even superstition comes naturally to me, though it was vigorously stamped down by childhood Sunday School beliefs that damned nearly all of that sort of thing as demonic—an understanding that I have not quite learned either to accept wholly or to reject outright.

But the question here isn't my spiritual beliefs; it's whether a belief in mysteries is important to the inclusion of the fantastical in fiction. I believe in mysteries—starting with those called by the name sacrament, which comes from the Church's Latin translation for the Greek mysterion—and I buy into fantasy's loyalty to the Muses, its protest against the self-righteous Enlightenment rationalism that renounces its own mother for the sake of its ambitions. It doesn't follow that everyone does as I do. It does seem to me, speaking again from the outside, that even the atheists who choose fantasy do so out of the instinct for wonder, something I believe to be spiritual in nature.

"Don't write to escape the mundane, write to color it with the magic you see." So says Masha, and she speaks a long-unvoiced but deeply held motto of mine. There is a sort of magic all around me, in olive oil and prayers, in the sprinkling of holy water and in the words of consecration, in the ritual of a wedding, in the laying on of hands. There is magic in the work of art, in the creation of a child, in the curse of barrenness, in what Emily of New Moon called "the flash" of beauty, in the convergence of troubles. For me, fantasy provides an expression for those realities that tales of the everyday cannot.

Perhaps others do otherwise, and all the best to them. But to attempt fantasy with no love for mystery, for the vision beyond—I can't imagine why anyone would bother trying.


Cats and Friends and other stories

This long and somewhat discombobulating week has contained one unique highlight: fellow Blogengamot member and blog-commenter Arabella and her husband came to town! I have to say, getting to meet longtime internet friends is awesome.

Plus, they brought me books.

I am SO EXCITED. And my shelves are nearly full again.
Being sensitive to feline ideals, they also brought a new toy for Maia. Maia was much less generous and spent the whole time hiding. Naturally, she later discovered the toy and claimed it for her own without hesitation.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: Randall Davidson's Crucial Proofreading Tips. Plain good sense.

* * *

Music of the week: Les Mis is coming out as a movie again. It stars Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe... what do you think?

If you want to hear the whole song sung by a quality voice, here's an option.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: Gender Genie. It'll tell you whether it thinks you write more like a man or like a woman. According to its secret divining algorithms, I blog like a man:

Female Score: 344
Male Score: 509

and write fiction like a woman, but only barely:

Female Score: 1562
Male Score: 1541

I'm not sure whether to be confused or offended or just thoroughly diverted, but there you have it. :)

* * *

And now I'm going to try and scrape together the rest of my day into some sort of profitability. Happy weekend!