Whom I’ve Been Reading: Marcus Sedgwick

Although my favorite thing to read is a novel, I also love linked collections of short stories. The forgiving nature of a series of discrete narratives doesn’t make me feel guilty when my schoolwork prevents me from reading a novel straight through.

Sometimes these collections are linked by place; there are many of these. Others are linked by characters, such as Justin Cronin’s Mary and O’Neill. By an object: Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Some by concept: Her Infinite Variety by Pamela Rafael Berkman. Sometimes by theme: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer.

And sometimes a collection is linked by all of these.

Printz Award-winning Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick contains seven linked stories which travel backward in time on a remote and unusual island near the top of the world. They explore the themes of love and sacrifice in the myriad ways that love and sacrifice impress themselves on our lives, sometimes obvious and sometimes not. But the writing is never obvious, never predictable. Sedgwick’s work is often, I think, categorized as YA, but even if you don’t usually read in that category, give this one a try.

Eric and Merle are two characters who orbit each other in time, meeting each other in different ways. Sometimes in love, sometimes bound by a family relationship, sometimes tossed together by external forces, their interactions show the breadth of love and sacrifice. The writing is lush without overpowering the reader. The stories are based on an actual historical painting, Midvinterblot, but everything else in the novel comes from Sedgwick’s own imagination.

Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this book that won’t give too much of the story away. Aside from the writing being enjoyable even down to the level of the sentence, I love the structure, how each story is illuminated by a subsequent one, how the orbit comes around in such a satisfying way, how the island itself is a character, how the names of the characters evolve, how the dragon flowers on the island and the image of the hare anchor the narrative. There is a hint of the fantastical in this book, but I wouldn’t call it fantasy; magic realism is more its purview.

This novel-in-stories accomplishes what the 1994 film Being Human tried to do but couldn’t. Midwinterblood captures two important facets of the immensity of human experience with crystalline clarity. And like a faceted prism, this story reveals a depth of possibility in every interaction, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. That love and sacrifice cannot be contained. It asks the question, is life truly this rich?

And so, it is.

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What I’ve Been Reading: Student Edition

I asked all the students in my sophomore English classes to recommend a book they’d read for pleasure — one not assigned for school — in the last five years. It had to be a book they liked enough to recommend it to someone — in particular, their classmates, as we embarked on the new free choice reading unit in my curriculum.

Here’s what they came up with! Any books here you’re interested in? Any you’ve read? Please leave a comment below.

 

sophomore recommendations 2016

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P.S. — The subtext of this post (and its chronological distance from the last one) should indicate to you I’ve been really busy getting the new school year off the ground. You would be correct in that assumption.

P.P.S. — I shamelessly gathered the inspiration for this post from John Scalzi’s New Books and ARCs posts, which I find interesting, that he puts on his own blog Whatever, which I find marvelous. I hope he doesn’t mind.

Whom I’ve Been Reading: Patrick Rothfuss

You know how sometimes books will have author’s notes at the beginning? Have you ever read one that told you from the get-go that you should probably not read the book? That it wasn’t really much of a story, and that the author’s army of industry professionals (agent, editor, publisher, etc.) would probably prefer he not say any of this to you at all? That if you hadn’t read any of the author’s other works, this was the exact wrong one to start with?

Last week I read that book: The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss.

I haven’t read Rothfuss’ two novels yet, I will admit, so I was breaking a “rule” as well, and I’m glad I did, because The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a strange and marvelous story that demonstrates in unapologetic, beckoning prose that sometimes rules aren’t as important as we think they are.

This weird tale of Auri, a waif who lives in the tunnels beneath a setting in Rothfuss’ other books, glories in an inexplicable naming system and an outward premise which perhaps doesn’t pay off. With no dialogue and arguably one character, it defies the expectations of what mainstream fiction does and contains. But I think we need more books like that. It’s just one more way of diversifying what’s available in the marketplace.

I don’t want to tell you much about Auri’s story. For one thing, I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s a quick read, maybe 30,000 words, and part of its magic is in the strange way things are revealed — or not revealed, as the case may be. (It’s definitely a tale for open-minded readers.) But for another thing, I’m not really sure what I would tell you about her story.

Is she an unreliable narrator? Perhaps. Her voice — by which I mean her thoughts — traipse into the realm of mental illness, but in a charmingly benevolent way, if you can imagine. Auri is in some ways a broken girl. But there are moments when I believed it okay: she has found her way in the world, and once I accepted that her world is not my world and that the rules of my world don’t necessarily hold sway in hers, Auri’s differences melted away and I found her to be relatable, and ultimately reliable, too. I found I cared for her tremendously.

Does any of that make sense? Maybe not. Does her story? I’ll let you decide for yourself. I will say that the first few chapters had me bewildered, but I persevered, and on page 84, something so unexpected happened I laughed out loud for several minutes. I couldn’t have appreciated that moment, though, without having first absorbed Auri’s voice and thought process and the mechanics of her daily life. And what followed that funny moment was poignant because, in deft fashion, Rothfuss allows the reader to understand more than the character does in the moment of a scene, and so we can have all the feels while the character has the noble struggle. And he does this without condescending, with patronizing Auri.

Auri’s life is shadowed by past trauma and brightened by future joy. And while it would be a disservice to you for me to explain how the end of the book breaks the rules, I ask you to consider what the rules of story are for. We learn in school that stories must have conflict in order to be stories, and that this conflict must be resolved for the story’s ending to satisfy. But beyond those intelligent guidelines, the details are open to interpretation. If there’s one thing Auri’s story teaches us — both in its details and in its execution — it’s that we can’t always assume that our expectations are fair. And we shouldn’t.

Stories break rules sometimes. They defy expectations, surprise us. They innovate. And if they don’t? They’re not likely to rise to the top of my TBR list.

An Interview I Gave…

I was recently interviewed by one of the vendors at the Gulf Coast Indie Book Fest (where my books and poetry art cards were featured last month), and the interview went live today. A couple of other authors are featured in the post, too, including Adam Holt, whom I shared a table with. (Look for that collaboration again in the future, I suspect.)

Here’s the link to the post which includes my interview. Thanks to Dylan Drake for the interest and the opportunity!

A Book I Love — guest post by Kasia James

Today’s post is by Kasia James, the mastermind and book-mother of the anthology The Milk of Female Kindness — An Anthology of Honest Motherhood, of which I was thrilled to be a part.

 

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Occasionally I hit someone who says that they don’t read. Not literally, although I am tempted to slap into them some sense of what they are missing. What I can’t really understand is how anyone can do without the escapism of books. To be absorbed into another world, and one created just as you would wish it to appear, is no small pleasure in the relentlessly attention grabbing world we live in.

When Angélique asked me to write about a book which had been influential to me, I spent a while tangled up in choice. There are many different types of beauty in books, just as there are in people, and the matter is just as subjective.

I thought of John Wyndham’s novels, which are written with sneakily simple language, so that the reader doesn’t realise the complexity of ideas that they are being asked to understand. I thought of Sarah Water’s fabulously twisted dives into history, as detailed and sensory as a tapestry. I thought of The Princess Bride, which my lover read out loud to me on a French riverbank.

Instead, I have chosen The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O by James Thurber. Wait, you say. That’s a kid’s story! And two books to boot! Well, yes, but when I was growing up we had them compiled into one volume. It’s a book which I’ve known since childhood, and yet come back and read every so often, just for the sheer joy of it. It’s possible that I had it as a bedtime story, as my bibliophile parents did make some slightly odd choices at times.

Both stories are fairytales, and that can be refreshing in itself. They are largely free of social commentary, existential angst or complicated relationships – except ones which you know will end happily. I’ve found the same sort of complete retreat in some of Neil Gaiman’s work, and he too is a fan of Thurber. The copy I have on my shelves is introduced by Gaiman as, “probably the best book in the world.” However, they are unlike any fairytale you have read, or ever will read.

They are full of playfulness. The Golux, for example, says of himself:

“I am the Golux,” said the Golux, proudly, “the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device… Half the places I have been to, never were. I make things up. Half the things I say are there cannot be found. When I was young I told a tale of buried gold, and men from leagues around dug in the woods. I dug myself.”

“But why?”

“I thought the tale of treasure might be true.”

“You said you made it up.”

“I know I did, but then I didn’t know I had. I forget things too.”

Primarily though, their playfulness comes about in the way that Thurber uses language. He juggles it, tickles it, messes about with it in a way that gives you the same feeling as watching a really talented magician. In some ways, they remind me of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

The whole concept of The Wonderful O is to pick out the fancy beads and see what is left of the necklace. A pirate who hated the letter O, “because his mother had become wedged in a porthole and they couldn’t pull her in, so they had to push her out,” sails to the island of Ooroo, and sets about banishing all words with the letter “O.”

“’Dius gre gling mins gress’ meant ‘Odious ogre ogling ominous ogress,’ but only scholars knew it. Spoken words became a hissing and a mumble, or a murmur and a hum. A man named Otto Ott, when asked his name, could only stutter. Ophelia Oliver repeated hers, and vanished from the haunts of men.’

The Thirteen Clocks also produces conjuring tricks like this astonishing snippet of alliteration and onomatopoeia.

“The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Father along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leapt over bleating sheep creeping knee deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets.”

Tell me the author of that wasn’t having fun.

One of the many things which I love about these books, other than the way he plays with language, is that they remind me that it is really not necessary to write within defined genres, which are of course largely constructed by the publishing industry to be able to flog books to readers. It is hard to sell something you can’t define, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth writing.

I know that Thurber did painfully revise and rewrite parts of these books, and had to be told to stop tinkering, but all that work is concealed from the reader, like the clockwork in an automaton. However, there is nothing laboured or mechanical when you read these stories. They flow and tumble into a different, and above all more lightheaded, world. It’s a world well worth the journey.

 

National Poetry Month — Day 1

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you know that during National Poetry Month I like to do some sort of month-long celebration of verse. Sometimes it has taken the form of a poem contest. The last couple of years, I’ve curated a Poem-a-Day series, which has been hugely fun. This year I want to do a little of this, a little of that, to reflect the enormous variety of things to appreciate about poetry. I will never be able to present everything in a month, but that’s okay.

Today will be the first of probably a fair few Book Spine Poems, because I love them. If you’ve not heard of this phenomenon before, BSPs are found poems made by putting the titles on the spines of books together. Every year at my school, the librarian and I sponsor a Book Spine Poetry Contest for the high school students, and frequently one of our teachers, IT wizard Harlan Howe, “primes the pump” on the first day with a BSP of his own. They’re usually really, really good and so entertaining, and this year’s is no exception.

 

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good news for a change / everlasting / geek love / pushing the limits / i am the messenger / out of nowhere / girls like us

 

I’d love to know what you’re doing for National Poetry Month, if anything. If you’d like to share your own poems with me and possibly have them show up here on my blog (I still have a few spots for this month left open), please email me at forest.of.diamonds@gmail.com with your poem and the subject line “Poem-a-Day series” so it doesn’t get lost in my inbox or spam filter.

Happy Poetry Month!