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What Makes This Book so Great

17910076What Makes This Book So Great is a series of reflections and essays written by Jo Walton for Tor.com between 2008 and 2011. There are several essays where she offers her opinion and personal experience on a particular topic in a frank, and personalized way. The other essays however are specific things Walton wishes to discuss from her reading experience of particular books. They are not quite reviews, rather, they are snippets of what worked or didn’t work in a book or series for her (as a reader). She states in the introduction:

“there’s no impersonality here, no attempt at objectivity. These are my thoughts and opinions, for what they’re worth, my likes and dislikes, my quirks and prejudices and enthusiasms”

For the most part I think she has certainly achieved what she set out to accomplish with this collection. There are three essays that caught my attention, which I’d like to discuss at length here. The rest of the essays just made my TBR longer with about five new long series, and a dozen other individual novels.  I loved the ways Walton describes how she reads when she is cozy, or down, or sick, and how comforting is to be in the company of a great book that seeks only to entertain and be fun.

In the very first essay Walton takes a stand for ‘re-reading’ in favour of only reading new books at all times. There are books one would like to read, or likes the idea of knowing its contents, but not necessarily willing to put hours into reading the material itself. Certain histories and political books fall into this category for Walton, and others alike (myself included). This topic is reoccurring through the collection and becomes apparent in the ways Walton describes certain long series. She writes:

“There are readers and re-readers…when I re-read, I know what I’m getting. It’s like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment…upon a re-read one is not surprised…you have more time to pay attention to the characters.”

The second essay that caught my attention is one where Walton discusses Speculative Fiction as it stand in opposition to the mainstream. She writes:

 “when mainstream writers come to write SF, it’s normally the case that they don’t understand the idioms of SF, the things we do when we (SF readers) read SF…the mainstream writers know how to do all the basic writing stuff, stories and characters and all of that, sometimes they know how to do that really well. They really want to write SF…but they don’t know how SF works…they explain too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things…In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character. In a mainstream novel, the world is our world and the characters are in the world. In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven”

I think this topic gave me pause, for two reasons. The first is that now I think the SFF field has its own sub-genres and its own version of the mainstream. For instance, I consider books like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season to be so mainstream, because on Booktube everyone talks about it (or has in the past) particularly in the Science Fiction and Fantasy channels. It’s hard to keep in perspective how small this group is overall, and how within society avid readers (10+ books per month) are a small subgroup. I now pride myself on knowing the most obscure texts rather than the mainstream, and yet ‘mainstream’ Science Fiction, is not recognizable by the average person (or reader) as it is a subgenre of a subgenre (speculative). It sort of reminded me of the Jeffrey Eugenides quote from The Marriage Plot:

“College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity.”

Walton also made me me reflect on the ways I interact with Science Fiction, and how, compared to many other SFF readers I’m still very much a beginner. This language Walton refers to with technicalities, and knowing what needs explaining and what doesn’t is at the beginning very excluding to a beginner. When I approached this topic I felt like there was a group of smart people, a nerdy and intellectual crowd, and they ALSO told me that I can’t sit with them. It’s almost like they’ve made up an entirely new vocabulary telling the ‘norm cool kids’ or the ‘belonging to no group’ people like me: NO, YOU can’t hang out with us. It’s like being rejected by every group on the social spectrum.

In chapter 95 “SF reading protocols” Walton is in communication with Samuel R. Delany’s nonfiction works, particularly when he was attaching a vocabulary to Science Fiction in 1977 when the field was still finding its defining characteristics. She points out how other genres are defined by their tropes, i.e. romance is two people finding each other, mystery has clues, etc. But

“SF not defined by tropes. Samuel Delany suggested that rather than trying to define science fiction it’s more interesting to describe it, and when describing it, it’s more interesting to draw a broad circle around what everyone agrees is SF than to quibble about the edge conditions…look at the way people read it—those of us who read it have built up a set of skills for reading SF which let us enjoy it, where people who don’t have this approach to reading are left confused.”

Walton also considers what leaves a ‘friend’ who borrows a Sci-Fi book and returns it claiming ‘I didn’t get it’ say that they ‘don’t get it.’ They are not stupid, and they can read sentences. But Walton states that Modern Science Fiction assumes you already know how to interpret its language and:

 “It’s just that part of the fun of science fiction happens in your head, and their head isn’t having fun, it’s finding it hard work to keep up.”

The last essay (and its alluring title) is the main reason I checked this book out in the first place. The topic is “Literary criticism vs. talking about books.” All I’ve ever wanted to do: talk about books! I want to talk about the books I love, and the ones I hate, and sometimes I simply have an emotional reaction, whereas in formal discussion people want a more objective, distant analysis, which makes things very difficult. In undergrad I joined ‘writing groups,’ ‘poetry clubs,’ and all kinds of groups that weren’t quite what I wanted. They all required of me something different from pouring out my heart and soul on what a book meant to me. The way I’ve been using this platform for instance, is mainly me trying to introduce everything I’ve highlighted in a text so I can keep all the quotations I loved from a book in one place. Some turn into reviews, others just into a log of quotations, and most somewhere in-between–but at no point would I call myself a critic, even when I draw lines of comparison between other texts or schools of thought (at times). Walton writes:

“Critics are in dialogue with the text but also in dialogue with each other…I resist the term because critics are supposed to be impersonal and detached, they’re not supposed to burble about how much they love books and how they cried on the train. Most of all I resist because I hate the way that necessary detachment and objectivity seem to suck the life and the joy of reading out of the books critics talk about.”

There’s also the matter of ‘spoilers.’ Often academics go to the core of what they want to discuss in order to have a frame for their greater philosophical or historical point, that they completely forget that some people might have not read the book. The way SF assumes you know the terminology, academics assume you have read every book they refer to. Walton mentioned how a footnote from a Penguin classic of a Victorian book about three chapters in spoiled the ending of the book. This doesn’t happen in bookish circles (like on Booktube, Book Blogs, or just gatherings of bookish friends) because we are quite cautious of spoilers.

“In academia spoiler warnings are fannish and embarrassing….re-reading is forever, but you can only have the experience of reading a book for the first time once.”

The fact that a footnote, or an academic/critic can ruin someone’s first reading experience of a text is devastating, and I have a feeling this happened for lots of people who took literature courses in University, carefully choosing courses they loved, and subsequently having those books ruined for them. Finally I loved the ways Walton distinguishes herself from critics and puts herself in the category of people who love to read and just to talk about books. She writes:

“I’m not standing on a mountain peak holding them at arm’s length and issuing Olympian pronouncements about them…the lines of respectability in the SFF world, or that if something is studied it ought not to be fun, and you can only have fun with certain books…I feel as if I’m not really a grown-up critic. And I don’t want to be. It’s too much of a responsibility and not enough fun”

Yes!

No Refuge but Writing | Exhibition

IMG_20180218_122302For the long weekend, I took a brief trip to NYC and explored several bookstores and the exhibition at the Morgan Library: Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, hosted in the Engelhard Gallery. Only a quick glimpse demonstrated what a huge collaboration this exhibition was. Manuscripts were brought from the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University, New York Public Library, Harvard, and many others, with the collaboration of many librarians and curators. The exhibition was made possible by generous donors, and it is exemplary work by the librarians and curators at the Morgan Library. Walking through the exhibition I felt absolutely inspired! Inspired to write, to learn, to read, to live! The way the exhibit was set up, the information provided, the research done, all was put together so well that—in my mind at least— it brought Tennessee Williams back to life.

The way my high school English courses were set up, and coincided with my theater classes, I accidentally had to read A Streetcar Named Desire about five times—not only read it, but study it, memorize it, and write several essays on it, as well as performing parts of it on stage. In undergrad I studied The Glass Menagerie, and this put me on a bit of a Williams crusade. His tragic female characters who cannot let go of an idealized past, his confrontational men who are mere bullies incapable of understanding the delicate nature of their sexuality, in addition to the intensity of the plot—are absolutely unforgettable.

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Battle of Angels Playbill

The way the exhibition is set up we get glimpses into Williams’s life in chronological order. Artefacts include one of his many typewriters, keys he collected from hotels, manuscripts and first drafts of his plays, elaborate plans for some of his character development, as well some of his well-deserved awards. Because Williams wrote on the cusp of the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are many playbills from Broadway, images of Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Marlon Brando, and posters/still images of these great actors playing a role in one of his many plays.

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Self-Portrait, Oil Painting

Tennessee Williams’s inner life, however, was most intriguing to me. On display was a letter Williams sent to his grandfather explaining how anxious he was for receiving a grant from the Rockefeller fellowship, the ways in which he based Belle Reve (the location from which Blanche arrives—the idealized past) on a poem he wrote many years prior, the way he dissects Blanche’s character and psyche before writing her into dialogue, and his many oil paintings. This was new information to me—I had no idea Williams painted—in a style I very much admire. His painting style resembles a cross between Cezanne and Van Gogh—a form of expressionism/impressionism but with a flat brush. I remember a moment from Streetcar where he went through a lot of trouble to outline the setting by means of a painting:

“There is a picture of Van Gogh’s of a billiard-parlor at night. The kitchen now suggests that sort of lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum. Over the yellow linoleum of the kitchen table hangs and electric bulb with a vivid green glass shade. The poker players—Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo—wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check, a light green, and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors.” (Streetcar Named Desire)

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Typewritten draft for Streetcar

According to one of the information panels next to his drafts of Streetcar, Williams got the idea for the play when living in New Orleans with his new lover Pancho Rodriguez where he famously wrote:

“’I was and still am Blanche…[although] God knows I have a Stanley in me, too,’” drew on their tumultuous relationship for the play. This he wove together with elements from earlier poems, shorter plays, and character studies to draft and redraft The Poker Night, the immediate precursor to A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Clearly, he drew a lot from Van Gogh’s art and allowed it to guide the poker night scene which became the heart and beginning of his most famous play.

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His typewriter (one of them)

Lastly, and what I found most interesting, was the way Tennessee Williams regarded writing as a kind of madness. In a diary where he noted anxieties about his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he feared was a failure, he wrote:

“I love writing too much, and to love anything too much is to feel a terror of loss: it’s a kind of madness”

Then, below the typewriter on display The Morgan Library wrote:

“Two of Williams’s most important possessions were his copy of Hart Crane’s Poems (also on view) and his typewriter. As a young man, he would write through the night, seeming to subsist on strong black coffee and creative expression alone. Even at his poorest, when his typewriter was seized by his landlady, he borrowed one. When he pawned the borrowed typewriter, he found another and promptly spent 15 cents of his last $2.00 on paper. ‘I must be mad,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘It’s all a little too much, too much.’”

It was so interesting to see it all laid out and to get so close to his handwriting, and most prized possessions. The exhibition will be on at the Morgan Library until May 13, 2018, so if at any point you find yourself in New York, try to see it if you can. If not, the exhibition has been put together in a library catalog titled Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, which is available for purchase online.

 

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Note: all pictures above were taken by me (no flash) at the Morgan Library, and are the property of the sources listed in the opening paragraph. According to their website: “Images may be printed out for study, or downloaded for presentations, dissertations, or non-commercial websites or blogs.”

September Wrap-up

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Books I read for Early Review

Literary Titans Revisited ed. Anne Urbancic

32841205This work is a transcript of sixteen interviews conducted in the late 1960s by Earle Toppings with great Canadian literary figures. I received a copy for review from the editor and I think this is a great new primary source upon which to rely when conducting research in Canadian literature. Full review HERE.

 

The Biophilia Effect by Clemens G. Arvay 

51RnoLAew9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This book is a beautifully written work about humans’ connection to nature and the effect nature has on our body and our chemistry. Arvay follows medical studies showing how significant it is to live among trees and to be as close to nature as possible. This book will be coming out in January 2018. Full Review HERE.

 

Books I read for myself

 

15811570Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson

This book covers the quirks of famous authors. It covers anything from the time of day they wrote, their word counts, or the colour of ink they preferred to use. I enjoyed it a lot and I thought it deserved a longer explanation immediately after I read it, so I wrote a review, even if it was a book I read for myself. Full review HERE.

 

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron 

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This book was really not for me. I was surprised to see Martin Scorsese give a blurb on the back, so I picked it up. A trend on YouTube for lifestyle vloggers is to promote “morning pages” where you should brain-dump words on three pages each morning to clear your head and make space for creativity. This book is where the idea came from and then just spread online. Other than that, I didn’t find many other useful tips. A lot of the things here are journal starter sentences like “when I was a kid I missed out on…” and you’re supposed to treat it like a self-help/therapy workshop to journal your ideas. A lot of the pages here were either the author talking about her extravagant and adventurous life, or lists and lists of affirmations for yourself along the lines of “creativity is God’s gift to us.” It’s a lovely sentiment, and I think many of the ideas could have been easily summarized and made into a pamphlet (and that includes the affirmations). This book is 231 pages of the repetition (in different ways) of the three essential points I mentioned above. To be fair though, she does title the book “The Artist’s Way…a SPIRITUAL PATH to higher creativity” so I guess that one’s on me.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope 

359586I never had the chance to study Trollope in undergrad so I thought I’d give the Barchester Series a try. The series is six books long and begins with The Warden. I read the first twenty pages and realized how lost I was because I didn’t understand Anglican terminology. I put together this Anglican Terminology PDF and printed it out (attached it to the book) and resumed reading. For the most part it’s a bunch of English men who are part of the parish discussing wages and minutiae around their roles, as a young doctor moves into town and decides to open a hospital. The text is mostly heated debate in town over where finances should go. Reading it I didn’t feel ‘entertained’ or even that into it, but as I put it down over the course of the month I kept thinking of that transition stage where those same Anglican terms I had to look up were dominant, and those were the main jobs that would be paid in society. There was a shift that occurred when medicine as we know it today started to be incorporated into actual health-care facilities, and a lot of these jobs were threatened and over time disappeared or became a lot less paid. I think I’ll give book two of the Barchester Chronicles a try because I’ve been told it’s much better but if it doesn’t hold up I think I will stop with Trollope there.

To a God Unknown by John Steinbeck

763798This book is about a man named Joseph whose father passes away and who begins to have a connection with land. So much so, that he strongly believes a tree up on a hill overlooking his newly-acquired land IS his father. There are fleshly desires, discord among brothers, and a character named Juanito who is from Mexico and not only is a worker-friend of Joseph’s but he does certain things in this novel that push the plot forward. Yes, “California,” “Bible Themes,” and “Saucy relationships” are the plot of A Steinbeck novel, but this one felt different than his other works. I read online that he spent longer writing this novel than any of his other larger works, and I think that struggle shows because it didn’t flow. I had most issues with the character of Juanito and I think they were accentuated by the current political situation between the things being said by the ‘leader’ of the United States towards and about Mexican citizens. His portrayal, way of talking, and overall presence felt like a caricature. I wanted to see more of the connection to nature, I wanted more from the presence of the tree. The tree was alluded to and discussed the same way we see the green flashing light in The Great Gatsby, but here it was such an important part of the plot that I wanted more from it. It’s evident how Steinbeck wanted to illustrate roots and the inability to leave a piece of land as if it was a person. That theme and the tree, as well as allusions to Biblical Joseph were all executed nicely, but the conversation and character development were truly lacking. The exchanges made between Juanito and Joseph almost put me to sleep, the conversation in general was so lacking and not believable…I don’t think people would ever talk that way. I thought about it, and I’m willing to forgive Steinbeck simply because it’s his third work. His first two works flopped when they came out and I think he was still working on his craft at this point. This is my second Steinbeck this year, and I will certainly keep going.

This Victorian Life by Sarah A. Chrisman 

25159463This is a work of non-fiction and a sort of experiment. Sarah A. Chrisman and her husband decided to adopt a Victorian lifestyle all the way down to the details. They both had advanced degrees and a life in this world, but decided to take things slowly, step away from technology and start living like Victorians with all the details. I said ‘details’ a lot but that is what is mostly discussed. The minutiae of corsets and other clothing articles, the stationary for letter writing and creating the draft of this book, the cooking methods…absolutely every little thing was slowly changed in their household to mimic a Victorian household. Chrisman kept writing how liberating it was so have things slow down and not be so caught up in this modern world of constant distraction and instant gratification.

I  read this book in preparation for Victober and I think it’s nice in a Walden-type experiment kind of way. The whole time though I kept thinking about ‘choice’ and ‘consent’ because I think that was vastly overlooked when Chrisman wrote this. The whole time she would say “I didn’t realize how great this was,” or “how hard it would be to thaw the frozen toilet water” etc. but it makes a HUGE difference that she knows she has a choice. Not just over herself as a woman, but having the knowledge she has autonomy over her own body, that she can say ‘no’ to certain marital pressures, that she has rights as a citizen…but also knowing that should she get sick she would go to a good sanitary hospital where she won’t die of consumption, she won’t die in childbirth, that there are methods to prevent that….I think all the difficulties, the REAL difficulties of the Victorian period weren’t captured. What made those novels dark or that time period different was largely highlighted by the frustrations women like Jane Eyre would have for lacking status, money, autonomy, (or in Bertha Mason’s case good healthcare). I couldn’t bring myself to care of Chrisman’s experiments with stationary, Thanksgiving recipes, and bicycles when she kept repeating “I was trying to live exactly like a Victorian” and “it’s all down to the details” when the reality is far from it. I am not trying to be harsh here because I did enjoy reading this very much, but that thought was at the back of my mind the whole time. Being aware that at times she reminds readers that she has a B.A, and her husband has a Masters degree in Library Science, that she typed the manuscript of this book for publishers, and other details as such, I remembered what she said in the introduction and that was: this is an experiment. The reason I mentioned Walden before is because Thoreau is often criticized for not being too far away from the town when at Walden Pond, and being pampered by the Emersons, so people read his ‘experiment’ with a grain of salt. I think in that same way I’ve been reading This Victorian Life. It certainly is a fun read so I recommend it. I can see how for two people who love something like the Victorian period together this could be fun a fun project, but again: knowing that they can at any point CHOOSE something different and the idea of having a choice in the first place…skips over all the real life anxieties of a true Victorian.

Other Reading

I also re-read Fifth Business by Robertson Davies. Perhaps one day I’ll write a proper analysis of it, but since it is not a first impression I don’t think I’ll critique it much right now. I am currently reading Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland’s The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I have been neglecting Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings since July and it’s not because I don’t love it, I actually can’t stop thinking about it, but for some reason I got caught up in other books. I think I need to give it the attention it deserves very soon. I also read some of the essays by Ursula K. Le Guin from The Wave in the Mind but I don’t have a strong opinion on any individual essay just yet. All I can say is that Le Guin is one of the most advanced and progressively-thinking writers out there.

Glances of Life | Poetry Review

35251432This poetry collection is divided in three sections:

  1. Intrigue: the way we perceive the world around us, how we take beauty in, how we get to know everything around us
  2. Whimsy: sketches of life, things that make up our life and become particularly significant to our role such as playing baseball, or putting ointment on foot fungi.
  3. Reflection: a step back analyzing ideas and concepts

As is indicated by the cover of this collection the symbol of the butterfly is a running thread through all three sections. The author considers the butterfly when discussing beauty, flight, and transformation.

Aside from the aforementioned three-part division, most poems in this collection are so diverse one cannot categorize them as they are stand-alones.  For instance, in the first section there is a poem called “Shattered” which is a rhyming poem juxtaposing the fairy tale of Snow White with the contemporary ways in which we attempt to alter the perception of our beauty either through cosmetic surgery or digitally manipulated Facebook pictures. While it still looks at another kind of transformation similar to that of a butterfly, the writing style, rhythm, and composition of this poem makes it somewhat unique and apart from others in its section.

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Accompanying illustration of fireflies by Maria Rodriguez for poem: “Dusk”

In the poems where Anderson captures moments from life I was reminded of Sylvia Plath’s ‘moment’ poems like “Cut” or “Balloons” and yet his play on words is so fun that I couldn’t help but imagine that I was being serenaded by the Caterpillar from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  For example he plays with the word IT in the poem “IT” as ‘it’ being an ominous presence, a something, or literally the digital IT department. There are other moments where he writes ‘fizzycists’ instead of physicists, or when he writes in the poem “i.”:

“they say it’s as easy as a π in the sky”

Anderson combines the mundane daily life snippets with the larger activity all around all-present in nature and the larger cosmos.

My favourite poems are “i,” “Shattered,” and the very first one “First Glance.” Here is “First Glance” in its entirety (spelling of words appear as such in the collection, they are not typos):

“Inananosecond / The Photons reflect / From your face and zip / Through the lens of my eye – / Your image summersaults on my retina / Where all comes into brilliant sharp focus / Then the rhodopsin in the colorful cones / And sensitive rods transforms to create / The impulse which crosses / Via the optic chiasm / To the visual cortex / Where all is parsed –/ And though I have / Never seen you / In the past / Somehow / I know / You are / Beautiful ”

(“First Glance,” Anderson)

I enjoyed the collection and would recommend it to anyone who loves poetry. It is appropriate for younger children as well if you would like to use this collection as a bonding moment, or a poetry study in a classroom.

The poetry collection is also accompanied by several illustrations created by Maria Rodriguez.

J.B. Anderson is a Detroit poet with a B.A. in English Literature who has been practicing orthopedic medicine for 30 years. He published a children’s book called Hockey Cat in 2010 under a pseudonym.

The collection was published on May 30 by Dog Ear Publishing.