Things Jane Austen Wouldn't Do and other stories

A more significant part of this week than expected has been spent over at The Hog's Head, posting about the release of J.K. Rowling's new, non-Harry-Potter novel. I haven't read it, though; worse yet, I'm undecided about whether or not to read it. It sounds shockingly like the sort of book I'd never even bother picking up if anyone else had written it. Well, except for Jane Austen. But Jane Austen would never have written that sort of book.

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Somehow the equinox passed without my notice, and it's officially autumn.

While the snowball bush has turned red, the sweet peas have begun going to seed.

They continue to be unbelievably beautiful, of course. I've been so attached to them that two nights ago I dreamed we had a hard freeze that killed them all off. That's coming, but for today, I gave them their water and was glad to see the life and color.

The pumpkin vine is dying back, leaving the pumpkins ready for harvest.

The lettuce has gone entirely to seed.

And after a long, cheerful morning cutting seed tomatoes with a generous neighbor, I made and canned six quarts of tomato sauce this week.

They're standing on their heads because, according to my great-grandmother,
that just about guarantees a good seal.
It did work—every last one of them sealed beautifully.
Oddly enough, we're still getting sunshine, though it often starts with a thick fog in the morning and ends in a cold night. I can see my breath in the mornings; I've also switched the smooth cotton summer sheets for warmer, jersey-knit spring-and-fall ones. No flannel yet—that's for winter.

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Speaking of Jane Austen, Dorothy Cummings has an excellent post on how we are not, nowadays, anything like Elizabeth Bennet. I learned a few things about Regency life and the perspective from which Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy would have seen each other.

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Writers' link of the week: From Brooklyn Magazine, Nine Brooklyn Writers and How They Work. I appreciated the fact that nearly all of these writers need silence, not music, in order to write, and that all of them are tempted by the internet. Maybe I'll make it, after all. :)

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Music of the week: "Sicilienne" by Maria Theresia von Paradis. Lynn Harrell's dynamics on the cello here are beautiful. Sometimes I thoroughly miss being good at music.

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Random amusement of the week: AbeBooks.com's Weird Book Room. One of the books is titled "How to Understand Women through Their Cats." The thought of Maia speaking for me... I have no idea what she'd say, but it probably wouldn't be flattering.

Oh, I nearly forgot: gratuitous cat picture!

Photo credit: Lou St. Hilaire.
He's so much better at taking good snapshots than I am.
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Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Lilith

Lilith“What made you think me a bird?”

“You looked a raven, and I saw you dig worms out of the earth with your beak.”

“And then?”

“Toss them in the air.”

“And then?”

“They grew butterflies, and flew away.”

“Did you ever see a raven do that? I told you I was a sexton!”

“Does a sexton toss worms in the air, and turn them into butterflies?”


“I never saw one do it!”

“You saw me do it!—But I am still librarian in your house, for I never was dismissed, and never gave up the office. Now I am librarian here as well.”

“But you have just told me you were sexton here!”

“So I am. It is much the same profession. Except you are a true sexton, books are but dead bodies to you, and a library nothing but a catacomb!”

“You bewilder me!”

“That’s all right!”

Author: George MacDonald

Synopsis: When young Mr. Vane follows a ghostly personage through a mirror in the family mansion, he receives an invitation to sleep indefinitely. Upon resisting that, Vane begins a series of adventures in and out of the world—and eventually finds himself caught in the middle of Adam and Eve’s attempted reconciliation to the faithless Lilith. Vane has a part to play in the returning of Lilith to Adam’s door, but in order to do so, he must submit to the original invitation and accept even death.

Notes: In a beautiful introduction to the 2000 Eerdmans edition of this book, C.S. Lewis calls Lilith one of MacDonald’s great works, along with Phantastes, the Curdie books, The Golden Key, and The Wise Woman. “What he does best is fantasy,” Lewis says, “—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man.”

Having managed to read Phantastes without making sense of more than a quarter of it, I was not tempted to sympathize with Lewis going into Lilith. The episodic, often confusing first half of the book took some perseverance to get through. It contained no mention of the title character—at least, not by name; it did, however, contain a lot of imagery that was difficult to comprehend beyond the Curdie-esque use of a continuum between the human and the subhuman.

A combination of things kept me reading, however. First, the striking mirror-reversal thoughts: “...the business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one, and so begin to be wise!” Second, the fact that I’d thrown my book club in the deep end of the fantasy pool by making them read this, and figured I at least ought to know what I'd gotten them into. A little beyond halfway in, I began to catch on to what Lewis meant.

MacDonald juxtaposes two stories, and it would be difficult to claim which is the primary: that of narrator Vane, who wanders the strange realm, or that of titular Lilith, who fights her one hope of redemption. Neither tale seems designed to make it easy for literary critics to explain what the book is about, exactly.

Whatever it's about, though, the story turns on the theme of obedience unto death, which is the central question of the motherhood Lilith refused, as well as being the point upon which Vane must satisfy the world into which he has journeyed. One hardly needs to look far into MacDonald’s faith to discover that it is also a rather important question Christ answered for humanity; a fact which unites both Lilith and Vane—though not explicitly—to the New Adam in their path toward redemption. In this, the characters follow something of Dante’s progression*, with Vane being guided through Lilith’s torment and purgation, followed by an ascent through paradise.

In a world full of stories designed to teach the young independence, self-reliance, the breaking of restraints and the throwing off of authority, the tale's fixation on mortal obedience is breathtaking enough. Lilith is more than that, though, as MacDonald works to reveal “the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen”. As Lewis says:
“[The mythic story] is in some ways more akin to music than to poetry or at least to most poetry. It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and ‘possessed joys not promised to our birth.’ It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives.”
Lilith aspires to the final chapters of Revelation—and then its own final chapter is ambiguous, leaving the reader to guess at what Vane’s experience was and will be. Readers may be haunted, horrified, baffled, moved, or all of the above.

As for this reader, I sat on a blanket out in the sun with tears running down my face, feeling as close to having glimpsed a bit of the afterlife as ever I get. There are a few lines in literature that strike the very heart of the hope of ‘joys not promised to our birth’. Lewis himself wrote some of them: “How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” and “Further up and further in!” memorably. Dante wrote some, among them “A l'alta fantasia qui mancò possa”—”Here ceased the powers of my high fantasy.”** MacDonald, who already had “A great good is coming—is coming—is coming to thee, Anodos” to his credit, crowns his beautiful theme of obedience unto death with “I wait; asleep or awake, I wait.”

For all that this thoroughly Gothic story is among the darkest of MacDonald’s great fairy tales, it is yet a chink in the wall of a cavern, letting in the sunlight. And for all its strange sadness, it is inexplicably, splendidly beautiful.

Recommendation: Read it for a dark yet lovely fairy tale take on the concept of redemption, as well as interesting resolution of the mythological Lilith's story.

* would never have thought of this if Mr. Pond hadn’t mentioned it
** translation by Anthony Esolen


Top Ten Tuesday: Series I've Failed to Finish

...for whatever reason. In most cases, I just haven't finished them yet.

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

This list is unusually amenable to categories, so here goes.

Middle-grade boy-centric books. The lot of these are truly fantastic. I mean that. They're just not apparently designed to captivate the emotions of a certain obsessively feminine girl.

1. The Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander

2. The Redwall books by Brian Jacques

3. The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson

Grown-up boy-centric humor books. Again, great books. I won't challenge that. It's just that humor gets old in fiction if not supported by a lot of drama focused on lovable characters.

4. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy's sequels by Douglas Adams

5. The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett

Series with superb first books that messed with my emotions badly enough that I haven't thus far dared pick up the sequels. That sums it up, I think.

6. The Giver books by Lois Lowry

7. The Across the Universe books by Beth Revis

8. The Dark Divine trilogy by Bree Despain

The last two belong in their own classes:

9. The Time Quintet by Madeleine L'Engle. I read and loved the first three, but nothing has yet convinced me that I really want to read about Sandy and Dennys.

10. The Bean books by Orson Scott Card. But I will finish these, oh yes. I loved the first two madly.

Which series have you left—so far, at least—unfinished?


Peaceful Monday

No discussion post this week; Masha said it wasn't in her. It isn't in me either, since this morning I acted rashly on the idea that my accuracy in both typing and piano-playing might go up if I skipped the coffee for once. Well! Now I'm sleepy, and it's too late for coffee. Especially as I've got to go learn off the soprano line to the Hallelujah Chorus, and ought not hamper my struggling voice with caffeine and cream.

On the other hand, I'm gratified that Masha thought highly of my post, and she's right that we're not in complete disagreement. She says:
"And that, I think, is the natural challenge inherent in beauty, from the fully accessible to the dangerous, it leaves us with the desire for something good just out of reach."
And I couldn't agree more.

Best wishes for a peaceful Monday.


Feline Genius and other stories

Recently, new friend and fellow blogger Christie invited me to guest post on her fairy tale blog. She suggested I talk about Harry Potter, and how could I resist that? The resultant "Harry Potter and the Writer of Fairy Tales", a mingling of testimonial with brief exploration of the fairy tale elements in the Potter books, is now live on her site.

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Maia, for whom seven mattresses would not be enough to disguise the lone pea beneath, continues to find it difficult to rest comfortably on the human lap.
MAIA: “You know, your legs could be at a better angle for sleeping on.”

ME: “Don't even talk to me about awkward angles! You’re standing under my elbows, and I’m trying to play the piano.”

MAIA: “Oh, like that Final Fantasy song you’re playing is so important.”

ME: “I like this Final Fantasy song. And I’m good at it, when you’re not making me play with my elbows inverted.”
A few minutes later:
ME: “Ow, Maia. Don’t dig your claws into me.”

MAIA: “You’re not playing the Moonlight Sonata up to Beethoven’s standards.”

ME: “I’m not even playing it up to my own standards! You’re distracting me. Hey! Why did you just bite my arm?”

MAIA: “It was in my head space.”

ME: “Darn it, cat, I once played this piece with a spider on my wrist, and now I can’t get through it with you on my lap. What does that say about you?”

MAIA: “It says you’re paying more attention to working that ridiculous pedal than you are to the comfort of the cat on your lap. What does that say about you?”

ME, stopping in the middle of the Sonata: “Dig your claws into me one more time, and you’re on the floor.”

MAIA: “I swear you were born in a doghouse.”

ME: “That’s only an insult to a cat.”

MAIA: “That’s because you’re uncivilized. Now go on mangling Beethoven, see if I care.”

ME: “Don’t pretend you can do it better.”

MAIA: “I haven’t any use for Beethoven. I make my own music. Chromatic. Dissonant. You’re probably not up to recognizing the genius.”

It sounds a little like Messaien, actually.

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Writers' link of the week: Elana Johnson on things she wishes she'd known before getting published.

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Music of the week: Rebekka Karijord's beautiful piano ballad "Wear it Like a Crown." H/T Terri Windling.

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Random amusement of the week: Hilariously inappropriate test answers from children. Advisory: a number of them are very inappropriate. :)

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Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Pawn of Prophecy

Pawn of Prophecy (The Belgariad, #1)“It’s still only a story,” Garion insisted.

“Many good and solid men would say so,” the old man told him, looking up at the stars, “—good men who’ll live out their lives believing only in what they can see and touch. But there’s a world beyond what we can see and touch, and that world lives by its own laws. What may be impossible in this very ordinary world is very possible there, and sometimes the boundaries between the two worlds disappear, and then who can say what’s possible and impossible?”

“I think I’d rather live in the ordinary world,” Garion said. “The other one sounds too complicated.”

“We don’t always have that choice, Garion,” the storyteller told him. “Don’t be too surprised if that other world someday chooses you to do something that must be done--some great and noble thing.”

Author: David Eddings

Synopsis: Garion grew up on a farm, happy and ordinary, unaware of his connection to the gods and the great sorcerer Belgarath. His primary problem is that his Aunt Pol doesn’t tell him anything. Worst of all, she continues to keep her secrets as they flee the farm with an old storyteller, travel with strange companions, and pay court to kings. But Garion can hardly stand around and mind his own business when he’s dragged along on great adventures, and he seeks the truth—and the truth suggests a great destiny.

Notes: Epic fantasy is well known for centering around simple farm boys with great destinies. There’s something of that even in the hobbit Frodo and the mistreated stepson Harry Potter, but there’s all of that in Rand and Perrin and Mat from The Wheel of Time, in Eragon from the Inheritance Cycle, in Taran of Prydain, and of course in Garion of the Belgariad.

Garion is the sort of character about whom the reader immediately cares, and therein lies nearly all the success of the book. The prose is not good, and the narrative is too prone to uninteresting details like arrival and departure moments, while being nowhere near prone enough to the sort of details which flesh out a world. The plot makes no attempt at being mysterious, and the reader shares Garion’s frustration at his aunt’s reticence not out of suspense—we already know exactly what’s going on—but out of sheer furious annoyance with her refusal to give her nephew a single consolatory truth, however difficult.

But if Eddings’ primary strength is in his characters, he at least withholds nothing of his power there. It took me three weeks to get through the 262-page book (comparison: I can get through a 700-page Wheel of Time doorstop in a few days), but I returned to it again and again for Garion, for good-natured Belgarath, for the Durnik and Polgara dynamic, and for Barak and Silk. Silk, in particular, is so hilarious that after a while, I read it for him nearly as much as Garion.

This is all the more notable because the characters are very simply drawn. Garion is an ordinary pubescent boy with the normal feelings and spirit thereof, despite his undisclosed destiny. Polgara is a bossy aunt with superpowers. Durnik is a hardworking, good-hearted farmhand. None of them are much more than this, but despite—or perhaps because of—their archetypal roles, they possess the strength to carry the story.

Once past the opening legend about the god Torak’s treachery against all the other gods, in which it is difficult not to think (perhaps unfairly) of Morgoth and the Valar as well as of Fëanor and the Silmarils, the story hooks the reader. It may be difficult to get through, but it may also be impossible to properly put down.

Recommendation: Read it for a simple, likable little version of the grand old fantasy storyline.


Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish People I'd Like to Meet

Now, this is not necessarily authors, mind. After all, we've already talked about which authors we'd like to invite to Thanksgiving dinner, so you already know something of the authors I'd like to meet—though there are ever so many more.

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

So, the bookish not-necessarily-authorial people I'd like to meet... all right, I'm going to cheat and keep this simple. Partly because I'm still catching up on life after last week (but hey, the deck is painted and the book is edited! Yay!) and partly because I sincerely would like to meet these people, all of whom are online friends I've made at least in part through common reading:

1-10. The Blogengamot!

I've met Arabella Figg (and would be delighted to see her again any day), but many more remain in a state of internet-only friendship: Travis Prinzi, Mr. Pond, George who comments here, Carrie-Ann Biondi, Kris Swank, Moe W., Matthew Boyd, Dave Jones, and Johnny. Then there's Aaron and Michael, but I've never talked to either of them; should we ever have a magical Blogengamot 'union (since it can't be a reunion exactly), however, they should definitely be there.

But also definitely in the top 10: Masha and Christie!

I have this awful feeling that I'm forgetting some internet friends....

What bookish people would you like to meet?


The Arch-Enchanter's Wand: The Artist's Highest Calling

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lilith. Source.
It was a quote that went, roughly, "The highest calling of an artist is to challenge people's views and test the boundaries of society".
~me, loosely quoting someone else

"If [the artist] cannot make a thing of beauty in his art, he will be unable to share truth; if he succeeds in beauty, truth will be a part of the art, with or without his consent."

The above quote turned up in my Google Reader recently. I'm not linking back to it, for two reasons: 1) I intend to shred it, and 2) it was only a passing part of an article on a highly controversial issue irrelevant to the question here. My apologies to the author, who seemed good-natured enough, and who did try to present the issue fairly.

But the idea that anyone's highest calling could be to Fix Other People And/Or Society isn't just a wrong notion; it's dangerous. Believing that the artistic gift gives us the right, even the duty, to take a crowbar to the doors on other hearts—that's arrogance. Subtle, well-meaning, insidious arrogance. That idea will destroy art. Left unchecked, it will destroy the soul of the artist as well. Carried into the public square, it's often tyrannical, and George MacDonald spoke truly that:
"The part of philanthropist is indeed a dangerous one; and the man who would do his neighbour good must first study how not to do him evil, and must begin by pulling the beam out of his own eye."—from Lilith
Artists cannot mature in their work without getting beyond this idea that their primary purpose is social change. As Masha says:
"...these ideals and desires are only a tiny part of the artistic calling. They can be an aspect of the whole-hearted pursuit of beauty, or they can be an idol, calling the artist away from his vocation, into certain failure."
We make social change an idol in America, which is part of why young artists lose themselves in this ideal. If it's not curtailed, the next generation of secular art is likely to turn out equal in quality to the last generation of Christian art.

But if our first purpose isn't hacking into the minds of those around us—all right, I'll try and stop ranting now—what is it?

Artists have one first and foremost purpose: to create beauty.

Out of ugliness, beauty. Out of chaos, order. Out of confusion, meaning. Out of despair, hope.

Out of darkness—and here I don't refer so much to the darkness of ignorance as to the darkness of faithlessness, hopelessness, and lovelessness—the lighting of a single candle and the placing of a mirror behind it. The pulling back of dusty curtains to reveal, if nothing else, the light of the stars.

Masha says:
"Beauty and truth are challenging, for sure, to everybody's views in some way. I do believe that art must challenge us, in some way to grow. Art that is completely 'accessible' flounders a little in the shallow end of things, trading in its ability to impact its audience for the comforts of mass appeal. Society's boundaries should always be tested, but only in the pursuit of beauty."
I'm not even sure I go that far. Is there challenge in a beautifully designed stained glass window depicting a Biblical scene or a saint with a few representative props? Yes, but it's much more subtle than the modern Western artist is usually capable of being. We've got to get away from this idea that because "the pen is mightier than the sword", it should be used as one.

The "shallow end of things" is where some people have to begin to learn to swim, so I hold that there's a place for accessible art. Much of children's literature lands here; the best of it is a narrower, safer pool open at one end to the wilder deep.

There's a very, very subtle difference between "testing the boundaries of society" and forcing yourself and your ideals upon innocent dissenters. As Masha pointed out, the idolatrous pursuit of influence will lead the artist into certain failure; likewise, in converse, that "if [the artist] succeeds in beauty, truth will be a part of the art, with or without his consent."

As noted by Cracked, we cannot tell a story without our own ideas coming to bear on the narrative progression. It's simply not possible. If we seek first to offer beauty, though, we might find that truth and its inherent challenges appear of their own accord. If we do our job well enough, that challenge might even turn its point on us.


Pulling Strings and other stories

This morning, after prayers and breakfast with Lou and sending him off to work, I went back to bed and slept away the rest of the morning. I'm still a touch groggy. If this blog-post is tolerably coherent, that's all I can ask for. No guarantees that it will be interesting or well-phrased.

Yesterday evening—just the evening—I finished and sent off three weeks' worth of editing work, cooked dinner, made a cobbler, made and canned three pints of blackberry jelly—which turned out to be blackberry syrup—and, finally, got a Hog's Head Common Room post up just after midnight. My entire week has been variations on that theme. And now, though I still have some reading and writing deadlines to hit in the next few days, I'm surfacing. With a splutter.

Surely I can't be the only person whose mind works like this:
SAYS: I wish it were next week; I’m tired of this one.
THINKS: Oh, no, now I’m just like the kid in the fable who pulled a string and bypassed his whole life, and now life is going to punish me for that and someone will probably die this weekend AAAAAAAAHHHH!!!!
Neuroticism aside, it's sunny, I've got some vinegar to spray on the cherry slugs that are eating my little tree, and I can hopefully get back to working on my book this evening. Those are all happy thoughts.

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The deck is almost painted:

Originally, the entire thing looked like the steps do now.
I'm loving my canner and jar-lifter, courtesy of Mom:

Unfortunately, I still can't reliably find the jelly stage.
The fuschia is blooming beautifully:

It's trying to take over the driveway, but it's so pretty that I just don't mind.
And Maia is spending the day relaxing in the sun:

Yes, I would like to do likewise.
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Writers' link of the week: Cinema and storytelling expert Barbara Nicolosi just joined Patheos. I'll definitely be following her blog. Here's an interesting post on visual imagery.

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Music of the week: Another of the most beautiful pieces of music in existence. I'm learning this with some friends despite my terrible vocal issues. Hopefully I don't rasp any of those high notes when we finally perform it—but ah, it's glorious.

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Random amusement of the week: I don't know how it took me this long to discover StickWorldComics, but when my brain couldn't handle any more editing this week, I turned to this page and read nearly all the archives. Favorites included beans because I laughed and laughed, really general because IT'S SO TRUE, before you post because it is ALSO SO TRUE, and—because the snark is just so enjoyable—history.

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One little house to clean, one little tree and possibly one rather larger tree to spray over with vinegar, several gardens to water, more books to write than I want to think about right now, and one still-sleepy blogger to take on the tasks... here goes. Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Hourglass

Hourglass (Hourglass, #1)"Um... then there was the shaman who thought I needed to be exorcised. That one was fabulous; he claimed he could do it with pickle juice and ashes."

Michael shook his head in disbelief. "Where does your brother find these people? He's clearly a shrewd businessman—why would he hire such obvious frauds?"

"Desperation? My boarding school was in Sedona. No shortage of 'spirtual healers' there. I guess the news that a concerned brother was throwing around a surplus of cash to help his loopy sister spread pretty fast. And none of the people using traditional methods could help me. They all wanted to drug me into a vegetative state or commit me." I let go of the iron bar and bit down on my bottom lip, stopping short of telling him they succeeded, angry with myself for being so honest. If he was a fake like all the others, maybe he would feel guilty and go away before inflicting any damage.

Author: Myra McEntire

Synopsis: Emerson sees dead people, but it's not the normal haunting—it's the manifestation of a genetic gift for time travel. The troubles are: she can't always tell the difference between the dead people and the living, which causes difficulties in company; she's got a magnetic connection to a gorgeous boy with a similar gift, but he's not allowed to date her; and there's an organization who can help her, but they're currently run by an evil scientist. It's a good thing she's tough. But she'll need more than her karate skills and bravery to go back in time and save a good man from being murdered, especially when it's hard to know who to trust.

Notes: McEntire blends the classic science fiction concept of time travel with the fantasy concept of superpowers, and comes up with Emerson Cole—spunky, short, and gifted with an apparent curse. The unusual construct of the supernatural element in Hourglass is one of its strongest points, and while the heroine's first-person voice reads very similarly to that of other YA protagonists, she's engaging enough to carry her tale.

Emerson's world is an odd and frightening place: a small, restored Civil War town in the South, where the old buildings bring out a host of long-dead occupants to mingle with the living. Of course, no one but Emerson sees them. She's got just one friend her age—the one who stuck by her when she held a shouting match with an invisible person in her public school cafeteria. She's also trying to hide the fact that she's weaned herself off her medication, preferring to see the dead people rather than live in a constant stupor.

Into this world comes Michael, who manages to be both mind-bogglingly handsome and the main counterpart to Emerson's gift in ways I cannot describe without spoilers. Along with all his general awesomeness, though, Michael brings a list of appalling revelations for Emerson, and he needs her help for a dangerous time-traveling project.

Generally, comparing even popular books to the mega-bestsellers is a bad idea, but the romance in Hourglass seems purposely formed to echo Twilight. Hyper-attractive male character with superpowers and a magical draw toward the female protagonist, check. Big, solid, down-to-earth young man in decided competition with the hero, check. Lonely, unpopular girl attracted to both but over-the-top obsessed with the one, check. Loving but sometimes misguided guardian uninterested in allowing our heroine to date her one and only, check. Empath character available to help settle the girl's emotions now and again, check. Versions of the earthy-vs-ethereal love triangle pop up a lot, but this is the most obvious I've seen; it was impossible, reading it, to avoid spotting likenesses.

For most readers, the romance in Hourglass will probably succeed, but it unfortunately struck me as more sexy than romantic. Bella's favorite word to describe Edward is 'beautiful', a humanizing term; Emerson's 'gorgeous' is a little more superficial, and Lily's 'delicious' is plainly objectifying. It's true that by the end of the story, Emerson echoes Bella's willingness for self-sacrifice, but it's also clear that while Emerson and Michael would give their lives for each other, neither is open to the sacrifices of chastity.

Emerson also seems designed as the anti-Bella: forceful, independent, and emphatic on the point that she doesn't need a man. That she wants a man is obvious, of course, but she's got to be clear from the beginning that she can kick his butt. While any woman would love the ability to flip a grown man over her shoulder, very few would consistently reject their own man's protective side. Some small acknowledgement of this would have made Emerson a touch more sympathetic as a romantic heroine.

That aside, however, she's likable overall as a character, especially in her desire to live life with her head clear. Her perspective on "being crazy" makes a strong appeal for the reader's sympathy, and her actions toward the end of the book are very comprehensible. Other characters—Lily, Kaleb, Ava, Liam—attract some much-deserved notice, too, with a number of unresolved minor threads left for the sequel.

The book itself is an engaging, readable little supernatural mystery, certainly interesting enough to provide an enjoyable afternoon.

Recommendation: Read it for a light, interesting combination of time travel and romantic suspense.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books that Make You Think

Most books do, actually; even most novels. Books that don't make me think seriously about anything are almost nonexistent—though some certainly provide far more matter for contemplation than others.

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

Unfortunately, I'm still in a hurry, so this list is less "The Top Ten Books That Make Me Think" and more "The First Ten Books That Make Me Think That I Could Think Of Off The Top Of My Head." That said, I know at least some of the best made it in.

1. The Holy Bible. Yes, I know it's the Sunday School answer.
"...religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."

2. The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling
"In the end it mattered not that you could not close your mind. It was your heart that saved you."

3. The Ender books by Orson Scott Card
"It was the miracle of the wafer, turned into the flesh of God in his hands. How suddenly we find the flesh of God within us after all, when we thought that we were only made of dust."

4. Any Jane Austen novel
"The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense."

5. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
"The little girl was very sincere in all this, for being left alone outside the safe home nest, she felt the need of some kind hand to hold by so sorely that she instinctively turned to the strong and tender Friend, whose fatherly love most closely surrounds his little children."

6. Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy
"In his Petersburg world all people were divided into utterly opposed classes. One, the lower class, vulgar, stupid, and above all, ridiculous people, who believe that one husband ought to live with the one wife whom he has lawfully married; that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, and a man manly, self-controlled, and strong; that one ought to bring up one’s children, earn one’s bread, and pay one’s debts; and various similar absurdities. This was the class of old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another class of people, the real people. To this class they all belonged, and in it the great thing was to be elegant, generous, plucky, gay, to abandon oneself without a blush to every passion, and to laugh at everything else."

7. The Divine Comedy by Dante
"O human race, born to fly up to Heaven,
why at a breeze so little must you fall?"

8. Any book by C.S. Lewis
"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."

9. Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
"She was perhaps the only entirely unselfish person whose name has a place in profane history."

10. Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux
"It is your arms, Jesus, which are the lift to carry me to heaven. And so there is no need for me to grow up. In fact, just the opposite: I must stay little and become less and less."

What books make you think?


The Formed Writer and Academia

Me, writing outside St. Peter's Basilica
From Masha, last week:
I realize I didn't really add much to the 'discussion' aspect, so if you have nothing much to add, feel free to boil it all down and just write on [what] you think the benefits or detriments a College writing program would be for you as a writer right now (as a more 'formed' writer). Do you think a program now would be more beneficial or more frustrating for you?
Owing to an immense deck-painting project, along with some time-sensitive editing work, I'm more than happy to keep the blogalectic simple this week. Masha's question is interesting, even though there's next to no chance I'll be enrolling in any kind of school any time soon. If the answers interest you, read on.

The short answer: I don't think I'd get enough out of undergrad to make the cost worthwhile, except in the case of a superb student/teacher relationship. I would probably enjoy grad school, provided that I got along with the professors. But wouldn't you know it—they make you go to undergrad first.

The long answer:

As Masha pointed out, I am a "more 'formed'" writer. That is to say, I've developed voice, direction, and some degree of reasonable confidence in my own work. I'll go on developing, naturally, but the course is set from here.

When 'formed' writing runs up against an academic editor—and I do speak from a certain level of experience—what happens depends a lot upon chemistry between the work and the academic in question, as well as upon style guide loyalties. Regarding the latter, I get marked down a lot for not using the Oxford comma in unambiguous lists; also for believing that if I follow the basic rules, my artistic choices for comma placement are all perfectly defensible. That's all in good, if sometimes annoying, fun.

Regarding the former, the factors are many and the ensuing decisions befittingly complex. I've faced editorial remarks with a list of questions something like this:
  • Is this the sort of thing this reader would read for his own enjoyment?
  • How thoroughly does the reader seem to grasp what I'm attempting to do?
  • What does it mean that this remark seems to come from a different perspective on [insert aspect of writing] from my own?
  • What might I learn from this comment/this reader?
  • What is the risk to my work if I take this comment at full value?
  • Why is everything about writing so damn subjective?
That last one is not quite a joke. One of my readers refers me to a popular novel as an example of technique, and another regularly shreds that same novel as truly pathetic storytelling. My first scene with A.D. delights some readers and baffles others. True, not all of these readers are academics in the creative writing field, but that sends me dangerously close to my old query regarding who has the right idea about how to write a good novel. Is it the dissonant schola of literary professors, or the great inharmonious chorus of readers who read for pleasure and escape and a mile's walk in another's shoes?

Which raises a further question: just who am I trying, ultimately, to please?

My sister had a writing professor whom she loved for his wise instruction and generosity toward his students. I've heard him speak, and I'm a bit envious—I think I'd have loved learning from him, too.

On the other hand, a friend of mine had a writing professor who, as an exercise, had the class create a poem in which the sounds and not the meanings of the words mattered. The professor read my friend's resultant work and said "This is about menstruation." I think my head would've exploded, right there in class.

A creative writing program, for me, would be all about the relationships. I'd learn, one way or another, but I learn anyway, and I will go on learning as long as I have my faculties. A good professor could easily be worth every dime of tuition. An industry connection or two, likewise. But tuition is expensive, and critique partners work on an exchange rate, which is all I can afford right now. For the time being, that settles the question.


Remembering Joy and other stories

Lou came across my former voice teacher's obituary this week, and though it's nearly a year old, it was news—and I had to stop and cry for a little while.

She taught me for at least eight years, though I didn't always practice as I ought. I remember her making me sing in German so I'd develop good diction, and I remember her assigning me 'The Lonely Goatherd' from The Sound of Music, just for kicks. I remember her enthusiasm for each of her students. And I remember her out in the sun with the pot of flowers I gave her when she stopped teaching, smiling and full of life despite having to make such a grand concession to arthritis and age. Look—she was always like this:

Mrs. Lorente, your splendid, persistent joy in life and music encouraged me every time I was around you. Thanks for the years of lessons at a rate I could afford, for teaching me not just the principles of vocal technique but your belief that music is something not to perform, but to share. Thanks for so faithfully being the artist and the cheerful spirit God intended you to be.

"My, how you will delight the angels!"

* * *

Garden pretties: dahlias, sweet peas and rosemary for Lou's birthday table decor.

Also, these autumn crocuses, which are apparently called 'naked ladies' (I don't even want to think about what that admission is going to do to my blog's Google statistics). They get that name because of the absence of foliage, which comes up in the spring and then dies off before the flowers arrive.

They look so otherworldly to me, with that pearl-white stem and lack of greenery:

* * *

One of Maia's favorite naughtinesses is, literally, anklebiting. Or at least, foot-attacking:

* * *

Thanks to Arabella for letting me know that an early Madeleine L'Engle book has been made into a movie by L'Engle's goddaughter! I've not read Camilla, but would love to both read it and see the adaptation. Here's hoping heiress Cornelia Moore finds distribution for her film.

* * *

Writers' link of the week: Great SF authors talk about setbacks in writing, and how to overcome. I sympathized with Connie Willis, and need to remember to take her advice.

* * *

Music of the week: At one point Mrs. Lorente decided, for fun, that I should learn the love aria to coffee from Bach's playful Coffee Cantata, a comic opera he wrote for his children. As the story goes, a determined father tells his daughter that he will only find her a husband if she gives up coffee, and she secretly swears that she will accept only a suitor who promises to allow her to drink it.

The aria is freakishly high and I never did get much good at singing it, but here's a lively rendition from someone who can reach all those notes.

* * *

Random amusement of the week: Gideon Lewis-Kraus on our fascination with internet cats: Quote:
The reason the lolcat says “Oh hai” is because he only just noticed, and certainly doesn’t care, that you caught him serenely occupying ur nouns, verbing ur other nouns. He doesn’t worry about you or what you think; by his living in your screen, you can love him, but there isn’t a prayer of reciprocation. Thus is the Internet cat the realest cat of all.
Never fear, Internet! Maia's every bit as concerned about what you think as she is about what I think.

* * *

And now I've not only got a house to clean, but half a friend's book to edit by next week and a deck to scrape and paint while it's sunny. I'm off. Happy weekend!


Currently Reading: Seraphina

Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)“I didn’t tell her. Eskar has always known. She used to be with the Censors.

My stomach turned; the Censors, a dragon agency accountable only to themselves, policed saarantrai for undragonlike behavior and routinely excised the brains of dragons they considered emotionally compromised. “Wonderful. So what have you done to attract the Censors’ attention this time?”

“Nothing,” he said quickly. “Anyway, she’s not with the Censors anymore.”

“I thought maybe they were after you for exhibiting undue affection for me,” I said, then added mordantly: “You’d think I would have noticed something like that.”

“I bear you an appropriate interest, within accepted emotive parameters.”

That seemed like overstating it, alas.

Author: Rachel Hartman

Synopsis: In the courts of the kingdom of Goredd, dragons take human form and mingle uneasily with humans, under power of a forty-year-old treaty. Dragons are rational and scientific; humans are emotional and artistic. Seraphina Dombegh, the young assistant Music Mistress of the royal court, is both.

With a long history of dangerous tension between the races, Seraphina must hide the scales on her arm and waist, as well as the truth about her silver-blooded mother. She’s risked her safety by joining the court, and when she discovers an assassination plot and begins working with Prince Lucian Kiggs to bring the would-be murderer to justice, circumstances jeopardize her life, her reputation, and her heart.

Notes: One of the oft-touted benefits of reading is the opportunity to experience the life and emotions of someone unlike yourself. Rachel Hartman’s appealingly-written debut attempts to offer this on both the surface and symbolic levels.

The fantasy genre allows for this particularly well, as readers must immerse in a character with supernatural complications to her life. Hartman succeeds here; the worldbuilding, while a little spare on the sensory side, creates a strong intellectual and political atmosphere, in which Seraphina partakes wholeheartedly. Music underscores the text, and while words are perhaps more unfitted to the description of auditory delights than any other kind, the reader feels Seraphina’s love for her flute and oub, harpsichord and choir. The scene with the megaharmonium—clearly a form of pipe organ—is particularly fun. Musicians will not likely go unmoved by that aspect of the story.

While noting that the novel works well as fantasy, I should add that it’s a rather good mystery, too. The combination of mystery and fantasy seems comparatively rare, with the Harry Potter books being a very notable exception; Hartman pulls it off. I actually grinned during the major reveal, thinking “Ah, this is well done.”

The important reader experiences are on the intimate, personal level, though, and Seraphina herself is generally very sympathetic. It’s nice to come across a brave, reasonable heroine who isn’t brash or physically forceful. Her feelings toward dragons and humans, music and study, her parents and her uncle and her love interest are all quite understandable and very well portrayed. The one place she fails to connect—though, to be fair, she will certainly succeed for some readers—is in her thoughts and feelings toward religion.

The religion in the story is an amusing composite of Catholicism and (I suspect) Hinduism, with bishops and monks and cathedrals on the one hand and on the other, an array of humorously bizarre “saints” who basically take the role of deities. It’s clear from the outset that Seraphina has an uncomfortable relationship to the beliefs, especially as dragons are presumed soulless. While Seraphina at first seems to fear soullessness, she moves in the direction of atheism.

Atheism is an understandable position for both author and character to take. (Hartman calls herself “one of those peculiar atheists who is fascinated by belief” and includes belief in a list of diversities she finds important; I appreciate her goodwill.) Religious readers, however, will likely get hung up on some of Seraphina’s comments. At one point I myself had to stop arguing with the protagonist to continue with the book, and at another I nearly put it down.

More problematically, the storyline involves many concentric circles spinning on a couple of related popular ideals: namely, Being Different Is Good, along with Just Be Yourself. There’s plenty to value in these ideals, which are underlying themes in nearly every modern YA story and some adult ones as well. They are, however, overly simplistic and almost universal in their failure to consider the right relationship of the individual to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.

With the novel overall providing a very well-drawn ambiguity in confrontation, the simplistic point is a little surprising. The theme is played hard—too hard, really; it comes off as A Message For All People at times. It is emphasized by a focus on love, where that word takes on the limited definition allowed by modern secularism.

The conjunction of atheism and celebrating differentness climaxes overtly in a scene that would require spoilers to describe. Suffice it to say that this installment of Seraphina’s story (there’s a sequel in the works) ends, as it began, in secrets and lies, and this reader’s response to the shocking declaration that—paraphrasing here—romantic love is the heaven worth having was: “...seriously? And what of love for the friend you’ve just betrayed? If this is your ideal of heaven, I’ll stick with the beatific vision.”

That failure—that equating of sexual love and self-expression, both in disregard of rightness and loyalty, with immortal bliss—is a shame, because nearly everything else in the book is a success. All of the primary characters are likable and interestingly complex. There are several very redemptive character progressions, including self-sacrificial ones. Even in the scene I objected to, the characters involved are not without conscience, and one makes a sincere effort to retain what of honor he can.

It’s easy to understand why Seraphina has received the buzz and high reviews it’s been getting. For the religious, as well as for anyone who values loyalty over self-expression, the story will have its less comprehensible moments. But it’s a well-written book with a lot of depth to it, especially for its category and genre.

Recommendation: Read it for a thoughtful depiction of dissonant cultures learning harmony, along with interesting characters and some quality character progression.


Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Fall To-Read List

Up until I checked, hoping to reference it in today's post, I thought I'd done well on my to-read list for summer. Turns out I got through just four of the ten: The Great Gatsby, The Name of the Wind, Insurgent, and "Fantasy classic choice based on pure whim", which turned out to be Juliet Marillier's Wildwood Dancing. The reason for this is no doubt that while most of the rest of the books are sitting on my shelf, I keep forgetting about them and requesting stuff from the library.

Probably I should've added that to last week's confessional.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish! Do come join the fun...
At any rate, here's my autumnal TBR list. We'll see how it all works out. I've already got a couple of these under my account in the library's request system.

1. Lilith by George MacDonald. This month's book club book. I suspect it's a lot like Phantastes in nature, on account of which, I hope the book club girls don't hate me for picking it. It would seem that I'm the only fantasy nerd in the bunch.

2. Palace of Stone by Shannon Hale. It's out! I just haven't gotten hold of it yet. But I will, oh yes.

3. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It's long past time that I read this children's classic.

4. For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund. Says Arabella: "This is a must for you—Jane Austen’s Persuasion as SF/post-apocalyptic." Can't miss that.

5. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen. Of several books I failed to read during summer, this one's apparently important. I've been told that Yolen is worth reading in the study of story structure.]

6. From George on Facebook: "Finished reading 'Camille (Camille Series, Book I)' by Tess Oliver. It's a werewolf themed book even Jenna St Hilaire could like. ;)" Now I'm curious.

7. Wrecked by Anna Davies. And possibly some other YA mermaid books. I've heard that over a dozen have come out this year.

8. The Princess Curse by Merrie Haskell. One of the Pages Unbound girls—I don't remember whether it was Briana or Krysta—claimed to love it recently, and I've found their site pretty reliable for recommending books that match my taste.

9. Either a Shannara book or something from Brandon Sanderson. Last season I got through a Rothfuss and am currently in the first of the Belgariad; I need to hit another fantasy classic this season.

10. If I can get ahold of it in time—it might not happen till winter—Reached by Ally Condie.

What's on your fall reading list?

EDIT: Odd, but I thought I put J.K. Rowling's upcoming, Potterless A Casual Vacancy on here. Apparently I took it for granted that I'd included it. Well. I do expect to read it.


The Kindling of a Flame: The Artist and Education

Raphael, The School of Athens. Source.
"The individual is all you ever have and all schools only serve to classify their members as failures."

Like most people who study writing, I learned that writing can only be taught up to a certain extent. Beyond that, the writer needs something else, something not taught, but given.

"We’re very passionate about education in America," Masha says in her recent installment of the blogalectic; "we like the idea of everyone going to college." In the general sense, that's quite true. In the specific sense, meaning me, I'm—despite my fondness and respect for education—not quite comfortable with that last idea. Not everyone is suited to the format and demands of university, and as things stand, the debts generally incurred in the obtaining of a degree are terribly burdensome.

I'm not contradicting Masha, however, as she would seem to agree:
"...while I do think college can be helpful, it can also be in the way of developing as a writer. Flannery O' Connor reminds us that "there's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." A bad teacher can form a writer in all manner of vices, and the best way to learn writing, through extensive reading, is something we can all do outside of university. I'm not against education, I just prefer not to see it idealized."
I concur. I didn't go to university, not because I didn't want to—part of me has always wanted to—but because the expense far outweighed my expectations of how much it would have ultimately benefited me as a writer. Perhaps I was wrong; perhaps I sensed unfairly that too many writers-in-the-making leave academia with lots of information on the sort of storytelling that pleases deconstruction-happy literature professors, and less concern for what works for the average reader. Some of my own friends have proven that such a judgment hardly covers every graduate.

Even without college, I wanted education. Ergo, I decided—fresh out of high school—to read the classics. Mom pointed me to Austen, and once I got the groove of Regency prose, Dickens was an easy hop and Dostoevsky quite manageable. Hugo's 1200-page Les Miserables was a challenge I couldn't resist. Tolkien happened into my life upon the release of the first movie (I know, I know! At least I had the whole story read before the second, right?)

Apart from the fact that I still haven't read Moby-Dick, then, I've attempted and hopefully gained a respectable independent education in English literature. Let me not, however, discount the value of guidance—provided, of course, that it's good guidance. I certainly feel the lack of some of that, though having a couple of academics as critique partners does help.

Masha questions what education really means, what it is to us as individuals. Narrowing that down to the matter of what education means to an individual writer—for the sake of making this a blog-post, and not a thousand books I'm not qualified to write—well, education begins at birth and doesn't stop with our last formal class.

A writer's faculty is shaped mostly by reading. Good teachers guide reading and interpretation, as well as helping the young writer develop the difficult skill of matching the image he creates on paper with the image already existing in his head. A bad teacher can destroy a budding writer with too forceful methods of shaping, or methods not forceful enough. The faculty for teaching well is a gift at least as rare and valuable as the gift for writing—probably far more so.

Also, different writers need different educations, just as different kinds of surgeon need different wings of the medical school. The set of goals, the nature of the writer's individual gift, the sort of thing he intends to write, his instincts and independence and learning styles, the resources available to him—all of these things require tailored instruction. Maybe he needs grad school; maybe he needs to bypass university altogether and pull all-nighters of studying for no other reason than that he's just that crazy about his work. He'll pull all-nighters regardless. Maybe he needs a good English professor, or maybe he needs a steady critique partner, or both. Maybe he needs to read Hemingway and Austen thirty times apiece, trying to get at the heart of great work; maybe he needs to check out half the library before he can find his own voice.

Among the canon of overused truisms is the statement that there are many paths to success. It's also true that there are many kinds of success, but that's another blog-post. For now, enough to say that education is vital to the writer, but a Bachelor of Arts degree may not be. O would-be student, count the costs either way.