Tag Archives: Farrar Straus Giroux

Review: How Fiction Works

How Fiction Works by James Wood

Title:  How Fiction Works
Author:  James Wood
Published: 2018
ISBN: 9781250183927
Publisher: Farrar Strouss Giroux (now MacMillan)
Publisher’s Blurb:  James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.

Being a reviewer is writing, “This female character isn’t very nice which means she’s not a very good person and that makes it hard to read.”  Being a critical reviewer is writing, “this hard to like character takes everything we know about the anti-hero trope and turns it upside down, to the purpose of saving the Queen from near certain death.”  Knowing how craft works is the difference.

In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes, “… reading for significance is always a negotiation between our excited discovery of the work and our comprehension of the work after the excitements of discover have faded a bit.”  We could have read Goon Squad for the sheer brilliance of the story itself, and left it at that.  A lot of readers have. But because we look for significance in what we read, we cogitated and poked around.

Knowing about the craft of writing allows me to ask the questions which allow me to get beneath the surface of a work.  In working through Goon Squad three times, I found questions I didn’t know to ask, and ways to answer those questions.  Because I am working my way away from Reader Response, and learning to be think critically about a work, I need to know about craft.

When I look for reviews about a product, I look for the ones which tell me what the craftsmanship is like.  “This insta-pot is put together well. The display is easy to read, the settings are easy to set, the lid closes tightly, and the removable pot makes it easy to clean up.”  As opposed to, “I love this insta-pot and would buy again.” I’m not buying an appliance based on the last review, unless I know the person making the recommendation well.

Thinking critically about a book is recognizing how the book was written, the choices an author made to tell the story, and being able to write a more informed review.  As to credentials, people will trust reviewers who know about the craft of writing more than the one who only wants to recap and express fondness, or dislike, for the author and the genre.

When I review a book critically, I want to make it clear that I know something about the writer’s craft, and that I have some understanding of how craft serves the story.  I want my own writing to reflect that I know something about using craft and strive for thoughtful, well-crafted reviews. Having this knowledge leads to being included in conversations which go deeply, and being taken seriously enough to be invited again.

Instead of saying to myself, “Oh I know I can do better than that,” when I read reviews, I now look for reviews which go deeper and encourage myself to strive for that level of writing.  For me, it’s the difference between saying “I loved this book and if you love zombies you will too,” and, “Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series gives us a look at how her protagonist gains agency and self-esteem through being turned into a zombie and finding a power structure which supports her in her growth.”

“124 was spiteful,” is one of the best opening lines of a book ever.  Reader response would figure out that 124 was an address and the house at that address was haunted, and they might leave it at that.  Critical review will delve deeper, “Why is the ghost at 124 spiteful? What is it doing to tell us, the reader, why it’s behaving in such a way?  Why did Toni Morrison use the word spiteful instead of something like angry?” Even further a critical reviewer would be able to point to other examples of this deliberate type of disorientation in storytelling.  Once we learn about the craft, we can find the patterns in other stories and discuss why disorientation is good craft. We also learn when it’s been applied well and when it doesn’t work. This also gives us credence as reviewers, and provides evidence we speak from authority when writing a critical review.

Knowing about craft elevates the discussion and makes the experience of reading, and writing, richer.  How Fiction Works provided me with more tools with which to think about reading.  Plus it gave me the phrase “flaneurial realism.” to cherish.

Review: Wrinkle in Time Quartet

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Titles:
A Wrinkle in Time
A Wind in the Door
A Swiftly Tilting Planet
Many Waters
AuthorMadeleine L’Engle
Published:  1962-1986
Publisher:   Farrar, Straus, Giroux
What’s Auntie Reading Now? pictures:  WrinkleWindSwiftlyWaters
Publisher’s Blurb: Madeleine L’Engle’s classic middle-grade series,  A Wrinkle In Time, follows the lives of Meg Murry, her youngest brother Charles Wallace Murry, their friend Calvin O’Keefe, and her twin brothers Sandy and Dennys Murry. Beginning with A Wrinkle In Time, each novel features the characters encountering other-worldly beings and evil forces they have to defeat in order to save the world. The characters travel through time and space and even into Charles Wallace’s body in this beloved series that blends science fiction and fantasy.

A  Wrinkle in Time
For a teenage girl, a misfit herself living in the midst of a tumultuous dysfunctional family, A Wrinkle in Time was a gift.  What I saw at the time was the love of the family for each other, that I was enough like Meg to make me feel a little less alone.  Over the years, I remembered Meg, and her glasses, and the Mrs. W’s who swooped in and took her on a quest to find her father.

Now, in 2018, on my second reading I notice how I’ve changed.  The book I remember hasn’t aged well but the portrayal of love, family, and a place for all misfits still resonates.

That longing to fit in never goes away.  But I’m a long way from the girl who sat on the floor in her closet and read, longing to fit in anywhere.   I no longer strive to fit in.  I love and accept who I am and often revel in the weird quirks I have which make others look at me quizzically.  It is not I who doesn’t fit in, it’s them.

Many Waters
Many Waters is a time travel fantasy story about the time just before the rains fall on Noah’s ark.  The title is a reference to the biblical verse Song of Solomon 8:7, “Many waters cannot quench love.”  It’s both a reference to God’s love for his people, and the love of the Murry twins and one of the characters have for each other.

Sandy and Dennys are described in A Wrinkle in Time as “ordinary.”  And they are, especially compared to the rest of the Murry family.  Extraordinary things happen to the twins in Many Waters, but their reactions are strangely ordinary.

While illicitly playing on their father’s computer, the boys wish to be in a place that’s warmer and less humid than their New England winter.  Zip, zap, zere, their wish is granted, and they appear in the desert in what is now Eastern Turkey.

Always logical and practical, despite the adventures of Meg and Charles Wallace, they try to reason their way out of their predicament.  Surrounded by short humans (a point L’Engle makes repeatedly) who are characters from the Bible, seraphim and nephilim and, magical unicorns, Sandy and Dennys behave as though none of this extraordinary.

No matter, I was able to provide the sense of wonder for them.  Many Waters isn’t a strong story, nor does it add to the quartet, but I found it fascinating.  The bible only says God told Noah to build an ark, and that while following this directive, Noah was ridiculed by his neighbors.

What L’Engle does here is flesh the story out and explores one possibility of the events which led to the Flood.  I could buy into all of it, except the unicorns.  Really?

Magical unicorns who transport people across the desert and through time?  In the Bible?  One would think that a suspension of disbelief which includes time travel, angels and God talking to humans, unicorns would be just another magical element to accept.  I couldn’t.  The unicorns felt like a forced explanation of how Sandy and Dennys got from their cozy home to the desert in another time and place.  And the emphasis on the boys being virgins … just, no.

There’s a theory in Literature Criticism I’m just learning about called Reader-Response, which basically posits that a reader brings all their experiences with them to the book, and those experiences are how the text gets interpreted.

This definitely applied to my reading of Many Waters, because all my reading of ancient religions played a part in my interpretation of the book.  I was able to overlook the many faults of the story and find wonder in this imagining of Noah’s world.  It probably would have worked better if L’Engle had just left the twins at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New to the Stacks: Toni Morrison, Asian Art Museum, Nebula Awards

Nebula Awards Showcase 2017
Nebula Awards Showcase 2018
Sula by Toni Morrison
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Jazz by Toni Morrison
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine L’Engle
Searching for Guan Yin by Sarah E. Truman
Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami
Divine Bodies – Asian Art Museum
Guided Tour of Hell by Sam Bercholz
  • Nebula Awards Showcase 2017
  • Nebula Awards Showcase 2018
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • Jazz by Toni Morrison ~ read
  • Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine L’Engle – read (No Review)
  • Searching for Guan Yin by Sarah E. Truman – read (No Review)
  • Book Uncle and Me by Uma Krishnaswami – read
  • Divine Bodies – Asian Art Museum
  • A Guided Tour of Hell by Samuel Bercholz

New to the Stacks: Madeleine L’Engle

An Acceptable Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle
The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L’Engle
Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle
  • Many Waters – read
  • The Arm of the Starfish – read
  • A House Like a Lotus – read
  • An Acceptable Time – read