- The week started out well when my local NPR station was playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade on my way to work. It’s one of my favorite symphonic pieces, and it was a good omen for what ended up being a pretty good week.
- My 2021 planner arrived on Wednesday. I use Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks in part because the paper is thicker and the ink from my fountain pen doesn’t leak through. I was weirdly excited when it got here, and I wanted to start using it right away (but of course, I have to wait until January). I wondered why I was so looking forward to using it, and then I realized I just want 2020 to be over with.
- I stopped at Target the other night to grab a few things. I took a quick look through the clothing section because I needed a new pair of jeans. I found a pair in my size, that was the right length, my favorite style, and in the dark color I prefer. On clearance. When I tried them on at home, they fit perfectly. How??
Obligatory Mina Photo:
There has been something of a cease-fire in the territorial dispute. Mina has ceded Under the Couch to Sidney, but taken up residence on the blankets in the studio and on anything that is reached by jumping onto it. Like the second shelf of the bookcase next to my desk or on top of the dresser in the bedroom. Sidney is an old cat with a touch of arthritis, and he doesn’t enjoy jumping. Unless it’s 3:00A.M., and he hops onto the bed so he can head bunt me in the face and meow loudly in my ear.
So all is quiet in the realm of my apartment again, and will likely remain so until this brief heatwave goes away again.
What I Finished Reading Last Week:
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia #1) by C.S. Lewis
- The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated from the Japanese by Eric Selland
- Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings, and Broken Hearts by Kathryn Harkup
- The Mabinogion by Anonymous, translated from the Welsh by Sioned Davies, audiobook read by James Cameron Stewart
I’ve only read the first book of The Chronicles of Narnia, and that was in college, so I don’t have any nostalgia working for me when I approach these books. I had wondered if I would like this more than I did when I was 19 or whatever, but no. I didn’t. The allegory still rankles, it still feels sickeningly sweet (and a little condescending), and I didn’t enjoy Lewis’s writing. I’ve read children’s books by other authors of the 20th century (J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Brian Jacques), and none of them felt like they were talking down to children- as in, they were willing to take the story into dangerous places, and then face the danger head-on, whereas Lewis looks away from danger and says things along the lines of, “it was a horrible thing, and grown-ups would take this book away if they knew you were reading about it”. This, in my opinion, underestimates children, who are aren’t as fearful as we dour old grownups think they are (Neil Gaiman, for example, has discovered that while adults are freaked out by his kids’ book, Coraline, children love it and think it’s hilarious). Also, if Aslan knew all about the Deeper Magic, then was his sacrifice really a sacrifice? Nevertheless, I’m onto the next book.
The Guest Cat is a lovely, philosophical book about the Japanese culture of the late 1980s and early 1990s, about the small things we hold onto, and the small things that make our lives worth living. And also about a beautiful little cat named Chibi, who shows up in the narrator’s little house one day and completely charms him and his wife. It’s sweet and sad, and also a book I want to read again if only to absorb more of the philosophy, as I didn’t read the endnotes before going into it, and they provide a lot of helpful context for the story.
Death by Shakespeare is not for the faint of heart. While we are largely separated from death and have rendered it as sterile as we can in the 21st century, death was an ever-present fact that everyone saw up close, no matter what walk of life they were from. Whether it was death by plague, beheading, or the toxic “cures” that doctors peddled, no one was spared the reality of death and what it does to the body. Harkup’s book details the facts of the myriad deaths Shakespeare dealt with in his plays and the ways that these deaths might have been recreated on stage. It’s a fascinating book, but if reading about beheadings makes you squeamish, you’ll want to pass on this one.
The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval Welsh stories, and contains some of the earliest tales of the court of King Arthur, along with other tales like those of the shapeshifting Gwydion or Pryderi the king of Dyfed. They’re unlike the Irish or Icelandic tales I’m familiar with, and while I prefer those stories to The Mabinogion, I’m glad I gave these a chance. I’m also glad I decided to go with the audiobook, as I had no idea how to pronounce half of the Welsh names in there. I may return to this at some point when I can find the Oxford World Classic edition.
What I’m Currently Reading:
- Where Dreams Descend (Kingdom of Cards #1) by Janella Angeles, ARC provided by NetGalley (66%)
- Her Smoke Rose up Forever by James Tiptree, Jr. (32%)
- Winter King: Henry VII and The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn, audiobook narrated by Simon Vance (28%)
- Jade War (The Green Bone Saga #2) by Fonda Lee (45/587)
Where Dreams Descend is a frustrating book. It wants to be so much. It wants to capture the melodramatic romance of The Phantom of the Opera and the glamour of Moulin Rouge!, but because it veers from being overwritten to being excessively angsty, it just gets tedious. And I’m confused: there’s magic in this world, but it seems to be used exclusively for entertainment even though it’s useful. For example, it takes place in a very cold city where people apparently don’t use fire because the city previously burned down (which has obviously stopped people from using candles and fireplaces in the real world?). So it’s cold there. And while magic can make things warm without the use of fire, people don’t use magic to warm their homes. So it’s both confusing and frustrating, and I wish it had gone through a lot more editing because it could have been so much better. But we’ll see how I feel about it when I’m done.
Her Smoke Rose Up Forever is a collection of James Tiptree, Jr.’s (aka Alice B. Shelton) short stories. So far, they are completely brilliant and generally disturbing. But not disturbing all the way through. They start out innocuously enough, but the farther you get into them, the more unsettling they get.
Winter King is a biography of the English King Henry VII’s later reign– basically from about 1495 until his death in 1509. It also details the laws and politics of his reign, the unrest, and Henry’s constant battle against pretenders to the throne. It also fills in a bit of the life of his wife and queen, Elizabeth of York. A lot of people think that Elizabeth of York was a passive and quiet woman, but Penn shows how she quietly used the power of a queen-consort. It’s a fascinating depiction of Henry VII’s reign, which is usually overshadowed by his son, Henry VIII’s reign.
I’m not far enough in Jade War to say much about it, but I’m looking forward to getting farther into it.
What I’ve Been Watching:
I finished Cursed! It was great, and if you’ve watched the first episode and said “Hm, this isn’t very good. I think I’ll watch The Great British Baking Show for the fifth time”, give it another shot because it gets better with every episode, right up to the season finale. Does it have its flaws? Yes, it does. The script is so-so, and some of the acting is iffy, and some of the characters are two-dimensional, but overall, I don’t care. I love Arthurian lore, and I love it when it’s reimagined in creative ways. Cursed gives you all the major Arthurian characters– Arthur, Morgana, Merlin, Gawain, Percival, etc., but they’re not in the positions you would expect, and it’s fun to see how the show’s creators moved their characters from their disparate backgrounds into the places we expect them to be in. The weirdest elements were the Vikings. I don’t know why there were Vikings (in the main body of legends, British [or Welsh] Arthur fought against the Saxons. The Vikings didn’t come along for another few hundred years), but I don’t mind them being there. I liked Doff and Red Spear.
I hope Cursed is renewed for another season because it’s great to see a fantasy series that knows when to take itself seriously, and when it needs to lighten up. I see a lot of promise for the show in the future. I hope Netflix gives it a chance to really blossom.
What I’ve Been Listening To:
I’ve had one particular song stuck in my head all week, and I’m fine with that because it’s a fantastic song. I mean, if you’re going to back up a pop song with a full orchestra, go all out.
About that Writing Thing:
I posted the last two chapters of my most recent fanfic last Sunday, and to my immense relief, the reviews have been entirely positive. I’d made a lot of changes to the story from when I first envisioned it about five years ago, and while these changes were all for the better, I second-guessed most of my narrative choices right up until I hit ‘post’ at AO3. But sometimes you just have to go for it and hope for the best.
And when you get comments like this:
“The research and writing skill and raw talent on display here in your work is nothing less than awe inspiring”
you realize that the choices you made were the right ones, even if they did seem strange during the writing process.
It’s weird. I’ve read so many writing guides by Big Name Authors (On Writing by Stephen King, Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin, Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, etc.), but the best writing advice I’ve found recently has come from film criticism and video essays about dialogue, editing, narrative tension, and set-up and payoff. What I’m finding in the video essays are about structure and how to use dialogue to advance character, plot, and worldbuilding. They also give specific examples of these things done very well, and how they’re done poorly in popular media– like Game of Thrones (which provides examples of both excellent and terrible storytelling) or The Dark Knight. Not to knock books on writing. I’ve found them to be extremely helpful. But if you read enough of them, the advice gets repetitive and it starts to feel like all anyone is saying is, “Just go write and worry about making it pretty in revision”. When a video essayist takes the best sections of dialogue from the best media and dissects it in a clear fashion, it goes a long way to helping a writer figure out how to structure a scene effectively.
So here’s some advice: if you’re struggling with moving forward in your writing and the last half-dozen books about writing haven’t helped, try watching some video essays about movies. I recommend Lindsay Ellis and Savage Books.