I’ve been reading D. E. Stevenson thanks to all the recommendations here. She’s one of the gentlest writers I’ve ever come across. She just puts these interesting people on the page and lets them sort of wander around until they find the end. Normally, I’d be all “Get focused, woman” on her, but the books are just fine the way they are. Like pudding. Lovely.
What did you read this week?
I was thinking the other day, “I’d like some Chop Suey like Mom used to make. Except, you know, good.” Jo did not shine in the kitchen. Her recipes are not recipes anybody would greet with delight. Although in my family’s defense, my cousin Russ who used to be the food editor at the LA Times, says one of the paper’s most requested recipes was Grandma Smith’s cranberry sauce, which always boggles my mind because my memories of Grandma Smith are of her eating raw hamburger and missing part of her thumb which had come off in a basement door incident.
Where was I? Right, food my mama used to make.
I was curled up in bed reading with dogs snoozing next to me and was suddenly struck with the most immense feeling of contentment. Not joy or glee or passion or excitement, just the sense that where I am right now is exactly where I’m supposed to be, that the whole “bloom where you are planted” bit is backwards and what I’ve been doing my whole life is planting myself in different places, making different connections, trying to find a place to bloom, and then suddenly, after decades of re-potting and transplanting, I’ve taken root here in the quiet middle of nowhere and now there are buds all over the damn place.
What I’m saying is, I’m happy. No reason. Just happy. So I’m wallowing in my contentment.
How did you wallow this week?
I read a new book this week, but it did not enthrall, so I went back to some old stuff, more Michael Gilbert and Wodehouse’s Leave It To Psmith because sometimes you just need farce. I kept getting visual migraines, which are not headaches but these weird zigzag patterns in my vision, and that made it hard to read, too. I know: audio books. But I hate being read to. Still Psmith was a great comfort to everyone except Baxter, who deserves whatever he gets, including a flower pot to the head.
What did you read this week?
Jinx asked about a Scientific American essay called “The Real Reason Fans Hated the Last Season of Game of Thrones.” by Zeynep Tufekci:
“I read a recent article from Scientific American . . . with a thesis . . . that the series broke its implicit promise to viewers because when it reached the end of the author’s previously published material, the new showrunners switched from Martin’s more sociological approach to plotting and character development to one that is common to most film and tv writing these days, with a purely psychological perspective. So… individuals moving through their conflicts with others, in place of individuals within a social framework adapting to others and finding their place in a complex social world.”
Criticism and analysis can be thought-provoking and insightful, but it’s rarely good writing advice. It’s not meant to be writing advice, it’s not craft, it’s theory. So while Tufekci’s analysis is interesting, it’s not a practical application for writers (which was not her intention, so not a flaw in her work). The essay reminded me of my PhD course work (no I never finished the dissertation) when I did a ton of literary criticism, then started to write novels, then did my general exams. One of my profs said, “Your criticism really changed once you started to write fiction.” Well, yeah. After publishing, I was on the inside looking out instead of on the outside looking in. Big difference.
I used to love to write fiction – fantasy and romance especially. I hoped to publish someday but mostly I just enjoyed writing and living in those worlds. I went through a divorce awhile ago and it rattled some of the carefree feel to my writing but I carried on, believing in the romance and fantasy and hoping for love again. Two years ago, my mom died and going through that and the fallout with my relationship with my dad just broke whatever it was remaining in me that could pretend or believe in the dream. I sit down and try to write fiction and it turns into memoir or how-to or similar. . . . [D]o you have any suggestions on getting my real/dreamer self back? I had resigned myself to the fact that this is the new me, like it or not, but lately I am mourning that loss and just not feeling okay with it.
First, what’s wrong with memoir or how-to? I love writing non-fiction (as anybody who reads this blog knows, I LOVE the sound of my own voice) and I don’t see it as a second-choice genre at all. If that’s where your inclination lies now, embrace it.
But you say you’re not okay with it, so my next question is “What is the story you have to tell that you can’t not write?”
I read my way through all the Ngaio Marsh books–thirty-two of them–and loved the characters; she’s so good at establishing a small group and saying, “Somewhere in this half dozen people is a murderer,” and then playing out the personalities. I have no idea how good the mysteries actually were because I was so caught up by those mini-communities. It’s people that make a story, not plot, for me.
What made a story for you this week?
This week I’ve been exploring Golden Age mysteries and discovered that Ngaio Marsh has been vastly underrated (by me) and Dorothy Sayers has been vastly overrated (also by me), although Murder Must Advertise is still a great book. The rest of them, you can have. Marsh, however, delights even when her mysteries suck because her characterization is so sharp. Which is a lesson to us all (us being writers). Also, Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar is the best Golden Age mystery I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of Golden Age mystery. After Tey, it’s Allingham, Marsh, and Gilbert, tied for second. I knew you’d want to know my opinion this.
So in your opinion, what’s a good book to read this week?
I’ve been doing a massive reread of Ngaio Marsh. I hadn’t read her for decades, so most of the time I don’t remember who the murderer is, which is fun, but the best part is her characterization. Inspector Alleyn leaves me fairly cold, somewhere between Miss Marple (my gold standard) and Peter Whimsey (I like him but only in small doses), but her casts of characters are stellar. There are usually five to eight of them in a small village or on a ship or in a big house, the contained community thing, and she has such sharp skills for writing vivid characters who combust when they’re together. I’m enjoying the hell out of Ngaio Marsh.
What are you reading?