Category Archives: Books

The Night Circus: An Example of a NanoWrimo Triumph

The Night Circus

The Night Circus

On December 1, I heaved a sigh of relief. National Novel Writing Month was over, and I had written about 46,000 words. I still hadn’t reached the very end of my book (that ending is something I’ve been tinkering with, but it shall be complete within the next week, I vow). But given that NanoWrimo was over, I was now allowed to read an actual novel, something I hadn’t let myself do in November, in case the writer’s tone carried over into my work.

The book I chose was The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, one of many sitting in piles on my bedroom floor, waiting to be read. I am one of those bookworms who enjoys browsing bookstores and acquiring more and more interesting books to read, even though I have piles aplenty at home. From what I had gathered from reading reviews, The Night Circus sounded like it had an interesting spin on the premise of a magicians’ contest.

And indeed this is the case. Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is an engaging account of a circus which is actually a showcase for two magicians’ talents. Morgenstern’s prose is so lyrical that you can see every tent containing wonders in this circus, like an ice garden or a wishing tree covered in lit candles.

But as I read this book, I also kept in mind that it had begun as a NanoWrimo project. Given the chaotic mess that I myself created in the month of November, I couldn’t help marveling at how beautifully written, how polished and precise The Night Circus is. But there are hints in Morgenstern’s Acknowledgements of her NanoWrimo experience. First she thanks her agent, “who saw potential in something that was once truly a god-awful mess…” Morgenstern also writes, “I am grateful to all who gave their time and insight to revision after revision…”

Whew. Thank you, Erin Morgenstern. I know I have revision after revision to go through before my mess becomes the polished novel I know it can be – but with your beautiful book, you’ve given me some hope that it can be done.

If anyone has any lingering thoughts on NanoWrimo, or the creative process, I’d love to hear them!

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Comics Part II – The Sandman

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

Neil Gaiman announced recently that he is working on a new The Sandman mini-series that will be set before the events of the first The Sandman comic, published waaaay back in 1988. Since The Sandman is my all-time favorite comic and one of my favorite literary creations bar none, I was pretty excited to hear this news. There haven’t been any new Sandman tales from Gaiman since 2003, when the story collection Endless Nights was published. This new set of stories will come out in 2013 and answer the questions set up by The Sandman’s opening, including how he was able to be captured by humans, and why he was dressed for war.

The Sandman - an early cover

The Sandman – an early cover

So why do I love The Sandman so much? Oh so many reasons. But here’s a couple. For one thing, Gaiman masterfully presents many, many characters, each with their own distinct characteristics and back-story. There’s the Endless, seven brothers and sisters who have existed longer than gods, and are more powerful. The Endless include Dream (Sandman), Death, Delirium, Despair, Desire, Destiny, and Destruction. There’s the inhabitants of the Dreaming, like Fiddler’s Green, the Corinthian, and Merv Pumpkinhead. There’s the gods and demons Dream encounters in his adventures, such as Bast, Lucifer, and the Furies. And finally, there’s the humans that Dream gets to know, including Rose, Hob Gadling, and Nada.

The Sandman - Brief Lives

The Sandman – Brief Lives

Gaiman juggles many characters in this series, but none of them ever bleed into each other. They are all clearly defined, and not only this, but intriguing and surprising as well. And because Gaiman’s characters are so strong, the story seems to grow organically from their interactions. The world-building here is as solid as rich soil beneath your fingers.

Of course, the story in The Sandman is a carefully planned out structure. Gaiman apparently knew where he was heading the entire time, and planned for his series to end around issue 75 (this differs from most comics, which aim to surge forward endlessly – Hellblazer is an obvious example of this, since it’s been published continuously since 1988). One of the wonders of this elegant structure is the implication that there are so many more stories to tell than The Sandman gives us. I always have the sense when reading this series that each character could tell me so much more about their lives than what is contained in the pages. That’s an extremely tantalizing feeling.

So now Gaiman is going to give us a little bit more of the story that’s been hidden beneath those pages. I can’t wait. And if you haven’t given The Sandman a try, I urge you to do so. It’s compelling, terrifying, moving, beautiful storytelling at its very best.

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Alison Bechdel – Homes of Fun

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

I’m in the middle of reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother, a graphic novel by the author of Fun Home. Fun Home delved into Bechdel’s relationship with her father, a high school English teacher who ran a funeral home and was a closeted homosexual. At the same time that Bechdel gradually discovered her father’s sexual propensities, she also realized that she was a lesbian. Bechdel expertly weaves both references to Proust and Fitzgerald and personal anecdotes about her father’s fanatical restoration of their home and affairs with students into her first narrative of family and discovery.

In Are You My Mother, Bechdel’s new book, she uses an almost obsessively psychoanalytic lens to focus on her mother issues. Each chapter opens with the depiction of one of Bechdel’s dreams. This sets the tone for the chapter, exploring unconscious hopes and fears in thorough conscious detail.

As Bechdel dove into writing this book, she shows us, she discovered twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and his theories about the child, the mother, and the child-mother relationship. Bechdel delves into deep psychoanalytic territory, using terms like The False Self and the transitional object to illuminate moments of interaction with her mother throughout her life. This approach seems both charmingly old-fashioned and sharply perceptive.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Reading this book, I’m reminded of my immersion in psychoanalysis for the thesis I wrote in graduate school. Even with misfires like the Electra complex, Freud stands as a towering intellectual figure to me. His consideration of dreams as completely meaningful and relevant to our lives is a supposition that continues to have ripple effects throughout psychology and beyond. I still wonder sometimes, how did Freud think of that? Not to mention all of the other ideas he came up with – the pleasure principle and the death instinct, the id, ego, and super-ego, the unconscious.

That’s one of the many strengths of Bechdel’s memoirs – they are so richly evocative. By laying her life completely bare and relating her own life experiences to the abstract concepts often contained in books, Bechdel demonstrates how deeply and densely layered our pivotal memories and experiences are. The unconscious keeps the imprint, even if the conscious mind moves on. If you read Bechdel’s two recent books, you’re sure to be reminded of your own childhood and all the permanent neural connections sparked therein.

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Fairy Tales: The Uses of Enchantment

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

I’ve been grazing through a recent and rather large collection of “new fairy tales,” stories inspired by classics like “The Snow Queen” and “Bluebeard,” called My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (catchy, no?). The stories in here range from a take on The Swan Brothers (the tale where six royal brothers are changed into swans by their evil stepmother), in which the swans’ sister is a modern-day performance artist, and “The Mermaid in the Tree,” where a yearly Mermaid Parade celebrates the creatures that wash up on the shore, and a child bride talks to the ghost of a mermaid.

 Reading these stories, I recalled other favorite collections of fairy tales and their retellings, the stories of monsters and heroines that have lasted for so many years. One of my favorite memories of visiting my grandparents’ house when I was a child was getting to read my grandmother’s giant book of fairy tales, Shirley Temple’s Storybook. The story “Bluebeard,” the tale of a murderous and conniving husband who tempts his new wife with the key to a room she is forbidden to enter, both horrified and fascinated me. “The Snow Queen,” with its intrepid heroine who braves icy wilderness to try to rescue her best friend from the sliver of enchanted mirror that has entered his heart, touched me with its poetic story of love and loss.

The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley

The Door in the Hedge by Robin McKinley

When I grew a little older, I discovered  a writer, Robin McKinley, who reinvented fairy tales such as “Beauty and the Beast.” I read her story collection “The Door in the Hedge” first, which contains a standout version of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” McKinley has actually written two different versions of “Beauty,” but I prefer her first one, with its many details of the enchanted castle. “Beauty” is my favorite fairy tale because the heroine is smart and brave, and because she develops a real relationship with her beast, so that in the end, when she says she loves him and wants to marry him, breaking the spell that has imprisoned him for so long, she truly means it. 

So, in reading that gigantic book of fairy tale retellings, I found myself wondering why it is that I still, after so many years, find fairy tales so interesting. What is it about these stories that makes them endure?

I believe that the recurrent themes of enchantment and transformation in fairy tales are one reason that these stories have lasted so long in our collective imagination. For example, in “The Princess and the Frog,” the frog is a prince, and only the princess’ kiss will set him free. In “The Snow Queen,” Kay changes from a loving boy to a cold minion of his ice queen, all because of that bit of poison mirror in his heart. “Sleeping Beauty” has its enchanted spindle, “Snow White” has its magicked bad apple, and in “Cinderella,” a pumpkin becomes a coach and mice become the footmen. 

Through the enchantment comes change: transformation. And in that transformation, many things may mutate. At the end of “The Snow Queen,” Kay changes back to a loving best friend to Gertie – but will he ever forget his journey to the Snow Queen’s icy palace? For that matter, will Gertie?  

The transformations in fairy tales are so profound, they resonate beyond the prescribed happy endings of weddings and children. After all, in the original ending to “Snow White,” the evil stepmother is made to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she falls down dead. Who decided she should wear those shoes? The tale doesn’t tell us. But perhaps in her enchanted sleep brought on by that poisoned apple, Snow White changed a bit from that gentle soul who ran into the woods and started keeping house with seven dwarves.

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Margaret Atwood – A Powerful Imagination

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite writers. I first encountered her when I read The Handmaid’s Tale, a story of the Moral Majority taking over America and imposing their beliefs on all women’s bodies, that seems just as chillingly possible today as it did in the 1980’s. Atwood’s book Cat’s Eye took a long, hard look at the ways girls can hurt each other. But it was the Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin that really truly blew me away. 

The Blind Assassin‘s structure is intricate, going back and forth in time as an elderly woman muses over her life and the reasons behind her sister’s suicide. As a writer, complex structure fascinates me – it requires such poetic precision in order not to lose the reader through twists and turns in time, space, or character perspective, or two or three of those mixed together. But the truly great writer is the one that uses complex structure to tell their story in the best way possible, leading the reader to the inevitable, inexorable climax. The Blind Assassin pulls a switch not only in time, but in perspective. To me it’s a master work, and like everything else by Atwood that I’ve read, unflinching and honest in the tale that’s told. 

I was reminded yet again of how much I revere Atwood when I recently read The Year of the Flood (The Year), a “sidequel” to Atwood’s dystopia Oryx and Crake (Oryx). You don’t need to read Oryx in order to enjoy The Year, but it does give you a deeper perspective. 

I was fortunate enough to see Atwood speak in San Francisco when Oryx was published. Her steely grip on current science and what it is capable of was clearly evident, as was her abundant intellect (she reminisced, for example, on writing four complete drafts of The Blind Assassin). At one point Atwood spoke on how green rabbits appear in Oryx and told the audience that those rabbits were, in fact, already in existence. 

So, the science behind the narrative is definitely not a weak point in Oryx – if anything, this book is almost too coldly rigorous in its approach. To me, if Oryx had a color, it would be a frosty blue. Told in third-person perspective by Jimmy, or Snowman, Oryx presents a future world of headless chickens bred expressly for fast food, pigs implanted with human brain tissue, and wolvogs, wolf-like creatures that act like curious dogs until they rip out your throat. Corporations have taken over all governing power, and their enforcers are called CorpSeCorps. More and more animals are becoming extinct. This environmentally catastrophic world that Atwood created in 2003 is clearly still not that far from our present reality (although of course it is arguable how much closer we have come in the last seven years). Again, the science here is solid. 

But the characters in this work are so distant, except for Jimmy, that the catastrophes seem far removed. Glen/Crake, Jimmy’s genius best friend, who deliberately sabotages humanity in revenge for his father’s murder, never seems like a real flesh-and-blood person. He’s impossibly brilliant and also cold as ice. 

Both Jimmy and Crake share a love for Oryx, a woman who was sold into sexual slavery as a young girl. Given her harrowing past, Oryx has a rather philosophical attitude. Jimmy attempts, over and over again, to find her anger at being mistreated – but it’s not there. Oryx only shrugs. She’s in a good place now, employed by Crake, and the world is the way it is. Rereading this fatalistic exploration into the future as I concurrently read The Year, I felt myself on the verge of nightmares. 

The Year of the Flood

However, The Year, despite dealing with the same dystopia, is a very different vision of this world by Atwood. Its two female narrators both speak in first person, present tense. The tweaked animals and predominantly soy/artificial diet are seamlessly integrated into the story. This is a warm and green novel of people working together to create gardens and grow healing alternatives to fake food, using herbs and plants as medicine instead of pills. There are several different characters in The Year, and they are all believable – they seem real. 

How remarkable that a writer can create a world the way that Atwood has and then look at it in such a different way the second time around. It is as if Atwood created this dystopia, with horror upon horror, in the first book, and then decided to see if there was indeed a different side to the cold science and genetic tweaking – if there was, in fact, hope. With this vision, Atwood has inspired me once again.

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Stephen King, My Old Pal

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

I’ll admit it – I’m not feeling very inspired right now. I haven’t worked on my book since I got laid off last week. Admittedly, I was not highly enamored of my job. Still, it was a shock to have it suddenly ripped away from me, like a bandage off a still-healing wound. 

There was a book by Stephen King containing four novellas that I had snapped up at Half-Price Books a month or so ago: Full Dark, No Stars. What a satisfyingly descriptive title. That title seems to embody how I feel way down deep inside, tamped-down feelings I barely acknowledge as I scan job listings, go to staffing agencies, and sign up for unemployment. Stephen King, my old pal. 

I have countless concrete memories of reading King, from seventh grade through high school. Reading Carrie in the small Corbin public library, killing the hours after school until my mother picked up me and my brother, fascinated by the opening scene with the tampons, and Carrie’s manifested rage. Reading Cujo in a motel room on a trip my father and stepmother took us on, my young brain acknowledging that this book, which details realistic horrors such as affairs and divorce, red dye in cereal that kills a business deal, even rabies – this book was truly depressing (years later I would discover in King’s On Writing that he drank so heavily while writing Cujo that he doesn’t even remember writing parts of it). My stone-cold worship of the poetic lines in ‘Salem’s Lot, and my heart-felt sympathy for Johnny Smith, the cursed protagonist of The Dead Zone

But here’s my most vivid memory from this time – it’s 2 or 3 in the morning, and I’m awake and in pain from menstrual cramps. This was back some years ago, when ibuprofen hadn’t yet hit the market, and Tylenol never touched those cramps for me. A heating pad was glued to my stomach, which had turned a dull red with white welts. The heat only helped a little. My mother had kindly gotten up and made me hot tea. I told her I felt sick and asked for the umpteenth time whether cramps could make you throw up. My mother, a nurse, assured me that they did not (mark those words, o reader!). 

So I sipped the tea while I read Christine, a book I had read a couple of times before. Re-reading King in those days was a reassuring activity, the ebb and flow of the narrative a comfort. 

I got to the part where Arnie brings special sandwiches to his best friend Dennis in the hospital. These sandwiches are exactly like the ones their mothers made when they were kids – white bread and yellow mustard. Yep, that’s all that was in those sandwiches – am I the only one who cringes a bit, still, at the thought of sinking my teeth into mushy white bread slathered with chemical-yellow mustard AND NOTHING ELSE? 

Reading Christine before, I had never enjoyed the description of those sandwiches – but this time, with monumental cramps twisting my insides, the thought of the mushiness and the harsh mustard tang was enough to tip my nausea into solidity. I scrambled for the bathroom, afterwards tearily proclaimed to my mother that she was wrong – menstrual cramps could make you throw up. 

Or Stephen King could. Not the descriptions of the rats and the teeth, the blood and the screams, you understand – the white bread and mustard sandwiches.

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