Writing advice from somewhere in the middle of a great book: Barry Hughart Edition

ChroniclesMasterLiThe Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox

By Barry Hughart
Subterranean Press, 2011

From the beginning of Part 2: The Story of the Stone

Jen Wu is a day Master Li sets aside for my literary endeavors, and I was pleased that it was cold and rainy and fit for little else than splashing ink around.

“Ox,” he said, “The writing of your memoirs is doing wonders for your calligraphy, but I must question the content. Why do you choose the rare cases in which matters run melodramatically amok?”

I heroically refrained from saying, “They always do.”

“When you allow sensationalism to do the work, you’re eliminating the need for thought. Besides,” he added somewhat petulantly, “You give the impression that I’m violent and unscrupulous, which is only true when there’s a need for it. Why not explain a case that was calm and rather leisurely and lovely, in which the issues were philosophical rather than frenzied?”

I scratched my nose with my mouse-whiskered writing brush as I tried to think of such a thing. All I wound up with was ink in my nostrils.

Shi tou chi,” he said.

I stared at him incredulously. “You want me to try to explain that awful mess?” I said in a high strangled voice. “Venerable Sir, you know very well it almost broke my heart, and I -”

Shi tou chi,” he repeated.

“But how can I tell the Story of the Stone?” I wailed. “In the first place I don’t understand where it begins and in the second place I’m not sure it has an ending and in the third place even if I understood the ending it wouldn’t do me any good because I don’t understand the beginning in the first place.”

He gazed at me in silence. Then he said, “My boy, stay away from sentences like that. They tend to produce pimples and permanent facial tics.”

If Kevin Hearne and G. K. Chesterton were to get together to write a book about a secular Father Brown character wandering through an ancient China that never was solving mysteries large and small, they might — just might — have come up with something as fun to read as Barry Hughart’s book.

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Aristotle in my lunchbox

AristotleLunchbox

I’ve been slipping notes into my daughter’s lunchbox from almost her first day of preschool. I keep it as simple as possible — using a note from the Lunchbox Love series of notes or today’s cartoon from my 2016 Peanuts a Day calendar as the base.

This particular note popped up in the queue this week. I ought to pass it on, but somehow I think it’s going to end up taped to my computer monitor instead.

 

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Surprising facts about my favorite authors: The Jerome K. Jerome Edition

Jerome K. Jerome in 1890. (Source: National Media Materials, via Wikipedia)

Jerome K. Jerome in 1890. (Source: National Media Materials, via Wikipedia)

I discovered Jerome K. Jerome after reading Connie Willis’ comic time-travel novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which Jerome and his boat full of fellow travelers, canine and otherwise, have an extended cameo.

Willis pulled the title of her novel from that of Jerome’s early comic account of his travels down the Thames, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). Jerome’s book was a blockbuster in its day. It sold more than a million copies worldwide in its first 20 years and helped turn the Thames into a highly successful tourist attraction.

Last weekend, while reading a nostalgia piece from the New York Times about the moral panic set off by Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, I came across this interesting tidbit about Jerome K. Jerome’s non-literary pursuits:

“A century ago, H. G. Wells, the English titan of science fiction, invented a tabletop game called Little Wars with a friend, Jerome K. Jerome. Though a pacifist, Wells was intrigued by war games. He wrote a handbook for his creation, filled with clear rules of combat for opposing infantry, cavalry and artillery. That was in 1913. A year later, World War I broke out.

You see the connection, don’t you?”

Really, how many books does a guy have to sell to get a proper identification clause in the New York Times? How hard is it to type the words “friend and comic writer Jerome K. Jerome” anyway?

But I digress.

Although the game Little Wars was unlikely to have triggered World War I, it is clear that war was on everyone’s mind at the time the game was created. As you might expect from the name of it, Little Wars involved setting up a battlefield with toy soldiers, wooden blocks, scenery to scale, and toy cannons capable of firing objects to knock stuff and soldiers over during battles. To play it, you’ll also need tons of floor space, as infantry are allowed to move up to a foot and cavalry up to two feet at each turn.

little WarsThe object of the game is to wipe out your opponent by knocking down his soldiers with your cannons (or to at least force him to surrender by cutting him off from his reinforcements).

Sounds like a blast, actually.

Rules for the game are posted at Instructables. H.G. Wells also wrote two books laying out the rules and strategy for the game: Little Wars and Floor Games.

(I’m beginning to see why H.G. Wells gets top billing.)

While it’s clear that the development of Little Wars didn’t actually set off World War I, it would be pretty interesting to know whether any of the strategies H.G. Wells outlined for his game influenced troop movements on the battlefield during the war. Do any of you historians and/or H.G. Wells fans out there know?

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It’s Sunday. Time to drink some tea and catch up on Victorian gossip.

1891Gossip

Excerpt from The Evening Post, Volume XLII, Issue 86, 8 October 1891, Page 2

Victorian gossip columns are a thing of beauty, full of back-handed chatter and salacious innuendo.

In the late 1800s, a well-connected man (or woman) could make quite a nice living printing other people’s secrets and adding a few spots to their reputations.

Gossip writers for newspapers like the Wellington New Zealand Evening Post or the Daily Pall Mall Gazette spent quite a bit of time (and money) gathering juicy tidbits about the private lives of well-heeled gentlefolk from their cash-strapped servants and disaffected friends. Much of the gossip was true, although some less reputable characters simplified their reporting lives by making their rumors up.

It was all published anonymously, of course, to protect the informant’s ability to gather more dirt. But occasionally a journalist would receive a tidbit juicy enough to justify a bit of blackmail. Unless the lady or gentleman in question were particularly brazen, the journalist could make a fair amount of pocket money from the promise of keeping what he or she knew out of the papers.

It was a living.  And judging by the enticing tidbits that remain in The National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past archive, quite an engrossing one.

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24 books you can read in less than an hour & 3 reasons why you should

This month, I came across a fun info graphic from Visually featuring 24 books that the average adult can read in less than an hour.

Normally, when I pick up a book, I look for one that will take more than an hour. I like to sit on our Very Large Red Reading Couch and put my feet up for a while. But my husband reads differently. He reads in fits and starts, snatches of time stolen from elevator rides, bus rides, and in the back of cabs.

Smart man. According to Visually, reading for even 6 minutes can reduce stress by 68%. Compare that to video games, which reduce stress by a paltry 21% over the same time. Those snatched moments of reading are also boosting my husband’s sense of self-worth and giving his imagination a much-needed midday boost.

Hmmm, maybe I should let Reading Break Out in Short Bursts more often.

quickBooks

Who knew it takes less time to read Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain than to watch the movie? (Snippet from Visually’s Infographic. Click the image to see the entire thing.)

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Go Set a Footnote: Reading in the Age of the Smartphone

MockingbirdGoodreads tells me I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in 2007, the year my daughter was born.

Not surprisingly, I don’t remember it. I don’t remember much from 2007 that didn’t have a picture taken of it.

When all the fuss over the release of Go Set a Watchman erupted last year, I thought to myself, I really should read To Kill a Mockingbird again.

The resolution remained vaguely formed, dressed in warm winter layers of good intent until a week or two ago, when Harper Lee’s death reminded me of my plan and a well-timed cold gave me an excuse to spend a day on our Very Large Red Reading Couch.

It had been so long since I’d read To Kill a Mockingbird that the book read like new to me. Perhaps, a friend of mine suggested, it was because I am a mother now, and The (now) Eight-Year-Old gave me a deeper appreciation for Lee’s Scout.

There is definitely something to that. But I also think that some of it had to do with the ease with which I could look up references that puzzled me.

Used to be, when I came across a passage with a reference I didn’t fully understand, I would keep reading in hopes that the reference would either come clear in time or turn out not to be that important for enjoying the book anyway.

Most of the time, I got by just fine, but I couldn’t help suspecting that my reading experiences were a bit poorer for it.

But now all I have to do now to demystify an opaque reference is place the book down for a moment while I google something quickly on my iPhone.

Take this passage from page 18 for instance:

“Miss Caroline was no more than twenty-one. She had bright auburn hair, pink cheeks, and wore crimson fingernail polish. She also looked and smelled like a peppermint drop. She boarded across the street one door down from us in Miss Maudie Atkinson’s upstairs front room, and when Miss Maudie introduced her to us, Jem was in a haze for days.

Miss Caroline printed her name on the blackboard and said, “This says I am Miss Caroline Fisher. I am from North Alabama, from Winston County.” The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.) North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.”

The humor in it shone through for me even as the passage raised all sorts of questions. Did Winston County really secede from Alabama at the start of the Civil War?

And what, my mind whispered a bit trepidatiously, are Big Mules?

I put down To Kill a Mockingbird and picked up my iPhone.

Hey Google, did Winston County really secede from Alabama in 1861?

Wikipedia tells me that Winston County didn’t officially secede from Alabama during the Civil War. But it didn’t exactly buy into the ideals of the Confederacy either.

A Winston Country Farmer. (Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives)

A Winston County farmer. (Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives)

In a nutshell, the shallow soil in Winston County wasn’t suited for plantation-style agriculture, so the residents of Winston County at the time of the Civil War were mostly poor farmers. Few owned slaves. When the Civil War erupted and Alabama voted to secede, Winston Country residents viewed the secession talk with extreme skepticism. As far as they could tell, secession was just another way to consolidate power in the hands of the wealthy plantation elite.

Charles Christopher Sheats, Winston County’s representative at the Alabama Secession Convention, flatly refused to sign Alabama’s Ordinance of Secession when it passed in January 1861. He was so vocal in his opposition that he was arrested and flung in jail. His support for the Union ensured that he would spend most of the war in prison.

Sheats was not the only anti-Confederate voice in Winston County. Many Winston County residents refused to join the Confederate Army. Some went so far as to talk of raising troops to support the Union. Eventually, after repeated attempts by Confederate authorities to impose conscription and loyalty oaths on those recalcitrant Winstonites, Winston County passed a resolution stating that if a state could secede from the Union, then a county could secede from the state.

The resolution created a new name for the region, “The Republic of Winston,” feeding the urban legend that when Alabama seceded from the Union, Winston County had seceded from Alabama.

In fact, Winston County remained part of Alabama throughout the Civil War, although its loyalty to the Confederacy was always in question. When the Union Army invaded northern Alabama in April 1862, many of the pro-Union Winston County residents took the opportunity to join the Union Army as part of its new 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment.

After the war, Winston County became friendly territory for carpet-bagging Republicans in a state run primarily by Democrats. As To Kill a Mockingbird makes clear, the residents of Winston County continued to be viewed with extreme skepticism by the rest of Alabama for generations.

Hey Google, what are Big Mules?

Big Mules, according to this article from the New Yorker, were entrenched corporate interests, the power brokers in the deeply segregated Alabama of the 1950s.

Given the fact that I’m constantly googling things on my iPhone while I read, you’d think I’d love relaxing with a nicely footnoted classic novel.

warPeaceThe funny thing is, I’m reading an annotated edition of War and Peace right now and the zillions of little footnotes explaining the history behind the passages are driving me nuts. I feel compelled to read them, and with one or more on nearly every page I am constantly being taken out of the story.

So why am I pleased to gain a deeper understanding of the story when it comes courtesy of the iPhone, and not when it comes via the super-convenient don’t-even-have-to-put-the-book-down footnote?

I’m pretty sure the difference is that the footnotes are pulling me out of the story at a time not of my choosing. When I’m reading a classic novel, I don’t want to know the nitty-gritty of every historical reference that someone else deems essential to my understanding of the story. I just want to know the basic facts of the historical references that interest me.

Certainly I can elect to ignore that small army of footnotes and plow merrily through War and Peace without pausing to consider each example of Tolstoy’s exquisite use of history in crafting his novel. And I am.

But I can’t help seeing those poor ignored footnotes waiting patiently at the bottom of the page. Ignore us, they seem to say, and you are deliberately choosing a poorer reading experience.

What kind of self-respecting reader of War and Peace would choose to do something like that?

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Death by pie, public domain images of fish, and Jane Austen’s hand-copied sheet music

Or, what I’m reading while The Eight-Year-Old’s on spring break this week.

Shakespeare’s 74 death scenes in a single play more gory than Game of Thrones (Telegraph)

Somehow I suspect "death by pie" isn't the slow moving deeply disquieting feeling you get after polishing off your sample platter of Thanksgiving apple, mincemeat, pecan, and pumpkin pies (a la mode, of course). http://cloud.highcharts.com/show/azujym

Somehow I suspect “death by pie” isn’t the slow moving, yet deeply disquieting overstuffed feeling you get after polishing off your sample platter of Thanksgiving apple, mincemeat, pecan, and pumpkin pies (a la mode, of course). Chart via Vox.com.

If you’re wondering about the logistical differences between killing off your characters by baking them into a pie or merely dismembering and then setting them on fire without the benefit of pie crust, wonder no more. Someone’s actually written a play about it. Or I suppose, more accurately, compiled a play about it. The Complete Deaths, which will be open at the Northampton Royal and Derngate Theatre in May 2016, includes all 74 death scenes written by Shakespeare in all of their gory glory. The performance, which will feature just four actors, comes complete with a desk of cards to help the audience track of the smotherings, suicides, stabbings, and ursine pursuits.

The New York Public Library Just Unleashed 180,000 Public Domain Images. We Can’t Stop Looking at Them (Mother Jones)

Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. "Gumard, sapphirine, Trigla hirundo" New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Illustration of a “Gumard, sapphirine, Trigla hirundo” from E. Donovan’s 1802 The Natural History of British Fishes, including scientific and general descriptions of the most interesting species and an extensive collection of accurately finished colored plates taken entirely from original drawings, purposely made from specimens in a recent state, and for the most part whilst living.   (Book title fashions have really changed, haven’t they?)  Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

This treasure trove of images includes historical maps, botanical illustrations, images of 1930s New York City, the Green Book collection of travel guides for African-American travelers in the mid-1900s, and yes, hundreds of images of brightly painted fish. Images are free for download by the public, and there’s a visualization tool to help you find what you’re looking for. Handy for bloggers and historical fiction writers alike.

3 Pieces of Music Jane Austen Hand-Copied into Her Personal Collection (Mental Floss)

"Deck the halls" handcopied by Jane Austen (Austen House Museum)

“Deck the Halls” hand copied by Jane Austen (Austen House Museum)

I have a cabinet full of sheet music and songbooks ordered from Amazon. Jane Austen had a desk full of sheet music she had to hand-copy one painstaking note at a time. Austen’s collection is actually worth preserving.

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The 3 books rocking our Family Togetherness Reading Separate Books Time

Weirdly, our entire family is happy with the books that we’re reading right now. This never happens. Not the reading part. Reading is constantly breaking out over here. We even have an official name for it: Family Togetherness Reading Different Books Time.

It’s the all of us being happy with our books part that has me thrown enough to blog about it. Most of the time, two of us are happy with our books, while the third (usually me) regularly interrupts the happy readers by asking for book recommendations in increasingly plaintive tones because the book(s) she plucked for the day is (are) deeply disappointing in some way.

To make things even more remarkable, all three of us are currently reading books that are part of an extended series.

Having this happen is somewhat like seeing a total lunar eclipse during a blue moon on a night when Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter are all lined up. That’s how rare it is.

Here are the three book series that are keeping the three of us glued to our reading couches this weekend.

Although we are all well past the first books in our respective series, I used the covers of the first books in case you are in need of your next great read.

Happy reading day!

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Books I can’t wait to read: The Giles Milton Edition

(Photo: Picador)

(Photo: Picador)

Just two scant days before Christmas, the Washington Post informed me that historian Giles Milton has written an entire book full of surprising facts about famous people. His book, When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain, appeals to me for obvious reasons.

From the article:

“Hitler, apparently, was high the whole time. Under the care of Theodor Morell, a ‘grossly obese quack doctor with acrid halitosis and appalling body odour,’ the deranged Fuehrer was almost always ‘pumped with as many as eighty different drugs, including testosterone, opiates, sedatives and laxatives.’”

Sadly, my Christmas shopping had already gone over budget by the time I read the article, and I no longer felt justified in tucking a little something for me into my Amazon shopping cart.

Soon, though. Very soon.

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Surprising facts about my favorite authors: Raymond Chandler edition

Although Veronica Lake was given the lead female role in Raymond Chandler's The Blue Dahlia, Chandler was no fan. He reportedly referred to her as Moronica Lake. (Photo: Alamy via The Daily Mail)

Although Veronica Lake was given the lead female role in Raymond Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia, Chandler was no fan. He reportedly referred to her as Moronica Lake. (Photo: Alamy via The Daily Mail)

The highlights of Raymond Chandler’s life tell a deeply depressing tale: an alcoholic father violently abused his mother, a mother whose subsequent fearful refusal to have anything to do with men once she was finally free of Chandler’s father no doubt colored Chandler’s own questionable attitudes towards women, a refusal to write Hollywood scripts in any state short of blind drunk, and an obsession with an opium-smoking nudist 18 years his senior whose death in December 1954 at the age of 84 arguably became the catalyst for Chandler’s own death four and half alcohol-infused years later.

Readers of his Phillip Marlowe books may not be all that surprised to learn of Chandler’s conflicted relationships with women, alcohol, and the institution of marriage in general.

But one fact in all this torment actually did surprise me. Chandler didn’t write his first novel, The Big Sleep, until 1938, when he had already turned 50.

If you’d like to learn more about Chandler, I hear there’s a rather excellent biography of him available by Tom Williams, called Raymond Chandler: A Mysterious Something in the Light.

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