Tag Archives: LitCrit

Review: 2018 Reading

Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Karmeron Hurley
The Calculating Stars signature
Binti by Nnedi Okarafor
River Queens by Alexander Watson
How Fiction Works by James Wood
The Queen of Crows by Myke Cole
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

For the first time in so many years, I’m not in utter misery looking into the New Year.  2019 holds great promise and hope for me. As unexpected as that is to say, it comes as a great relief.  Books and lists are the great constant. The great coping mechanism of all time, making lists. It was like the sun shone only on me the day I realized I could combine the two and keep my sanity.

One blissful weekend in August when I was hanging out with other geeks and nerds who loved what I did my vague dissatisfaction was temporarily banished.  I went to panels about writing, met authors (and a real live astronaut), sat in lines with others and talked about writing. Frequently amused that wherever there was a line, we all had some kind of device out in order to read. My device was dead tree style.

Exhaustion was my companion the entire con, but gods I was happy.  Happy? How could that possibly be? When WorldCon 76 San Jose was over, the sticky film of vague unrest returned.  Barf, I thought (or words to that effect, anyway). Inklings filtered through my overtaxed, hyperalert brain.

When great ideas hit it can feel like a jolt of lightning, adrenaline flowing through my spine.  This idea was quieter. An author I met at WorldCon started posting about teaching writing. And so I asked, “do you have something for me?”  His probing questions finally got me to the bottom of my unrest. “I want to learn to read and write about books better.”

And that’s how I found a mentor, and made the last quarter of 2018  happy. Best decision of my life ever. It’s not just the reading and writing which have evolved.  Unexpected personal growth came at me like sunshine filtered through open doors. Even on the hardest of hard days when I think I can’t even get out of bed, and the writing is like carving bricks of granite with my bare hands, I know I’ll be good.  Discovering the weird joys of LitCrit have given me a new dimension of meaning.

It is nearly impossible to pick just a few great books from 2018, but here’s my attempt at defining the seminal books for me.

2018 Books by the Numbers:

  • 68 read
  • 20,382 pages
  • 26 unique publication years
  • 40 unique author names
    • 19 female authors
    • 23 male authors
    • 26 new to me authors
  • 98 books new to the stacks
    • 48 new to the stacks read
    • 7 new to the stacks Pearl Ruled

Favorite Reads

The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood, Margaret
Even more relevant today than when first published, Atwood’s description of a dystopian, Puritanical society with no agency for women chills.  My review focuses on the use of Scripture as justification.
The Armored Saint by Cole, Myke
The Queen of Crows by Cole, Myke
Heloise is the hero we need now.  Tight, intricate, suspenseful story about a young woman leading the uprising against the religious order in charge.  Book 3, The Killing Light, comes out in 2019.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Egan, Jennifer
Freakin’ brilliant.  We spent a month on it, I read it three times.  Don’t let the non-linear style throw you off. Egan tells a hell of a story.
American Gods by Gaiman, Neil
What happens when Old Gods realize they’re being squeezed out by the New Gods?  Just as fantastic on the second read.
My Journey in Creative Reading by Gallowglas, M. Todd
Don’t know how to review this book since he’s also my mentor.  Every bit is so good and resonated so deeply I knew I had the right guy.
The Geek Feminist Revolution by Hurley, Kameron
My love letter to Kameron who speaks the truth about being a woman so hard.  I continue to learn a lot from her about feminism and writing. GFR has earned a permanent place on my reference shelf.
The Calculating Stars by Kowal, Mary Robinette
The Fated Sky by Kowal, Mary Robinette
Speaking of feminism … Elma’s a wonderful example of all any human could be; blind spots and social anxiety and all.  Mary Robinette Kowal is as kind and generous as I had hoped. An hour with her and real live astronaut, Kjell Lindgren was more than I’d expected.  Excitedly waiting for two more Lady Astronaut books.
Beloved by Morrison, Toni
Because I am stubborn and refuse to read what “everyone” else is reading, it took an essay in The Methods of Breaking Bad, and some serious prodding from a trusted friend to read Toni Morrison’s classic.  Best opening line ever, “124 was spiteful.”
Binti by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti: Home by Okorafor, Nnedi
Binti:  The Night Masquerade by Okorafor, Nnedi
Nnedi Okorafor’s brilliant story about a young African woman who breaks tribal taboos to go to university on another planet.  My review focuses on bigotry.
River Queens by Watson, Alexander
Alexander Watson’s writing is elegant as he tells the tale of refurbishing a wooden boat and sailing her from Texas to Ohio.  His is the most polished debut I’ve read and I’m forever grateful he asked me to review it.
How Fiction Works by Wood, James
Every writer, every critic, every anyone interested in reading and writing needs to read How Fiction Works.  My review focuses on why critical reviewers should know about craft in order to write better themselves.

New to the Stacks: Lit Crit

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin & Supryia M. Ray

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray
How Fiction Works by James Wood ~ read
Literary Theory: A complete introduction by Sara Upstone ~ read
Genrenauts by Michael R. Underwood
How Literature Works by John Sutherland
#litcrit

How Fiction Works by James Wood
Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction by Sara Upstone
Genrenauts by Michael R. Undersood
How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts by John Sutherland

On Writing: Two Months

I’m not sure how I wound up in this place.  This place of intellectual challenge and delight while reading and writing differently than before.  In two short months, I have seen remarkable change in the way I approach them, the keepers of my sanity.  Somehow, I’ve become richer, more sure of myself, more ready to do the hard work required to become better at reading, and writing.

A lifetime of reading voraciously, anything within reach.  Some above my grade level, others extremely inappropriate for a reader of any age, all of it like a drug no one else around understood.  They watched me read, they fed my habit, and considered themselves readers too. But somehow my attachment to books and the spells they wove were different for me.

I read all the time, often getting in trouble in class for not paying enough attention.  I’m bad at math but I still think I got the better part of the deal. At temp jobs, “You mean you’d rather read than work?”  Uh, yeah.

But some books felt like I was just skating on the surface.  I could see figures beneath the ice, enticing me to join them, but I couldn’t reach them.  I didn’t know how.

But I kept reading.  From “should read,” “best of,” “canon,” lists.  Trying to organize what felt like a very disorganized approach to reading.  I made lists of my own, going through bibliographies carefully. I was looking for clues to a puzzle I didn’t understand.

The lists caused minor panic attacks.  The boxes on my shelves leered at me. And still I brought them into my living space.  How was I ever going to read them all? Sometimes I would admonish myself to read faster, harder, eschew everything unnecessary to daily life for the sake of reading.

I joined a social media site for readers, found a group and settled in for a couple of years.  There I developed rules of engagement for my reading. Only these topics, only series I had already started, only authors whose work I had begun reading.  But someone would warble a book or, in the case of egregious generosity, send the first in a series to my Kindle app. The nerve!

Then what was supposed to be a cozy little community blew up in my face over my unwillingness to move a book from a challenge which suited my needs to another one which suited someone else.  It got ugly, names were called, fat shaming was invoked and I sat at my computer sobbing. All of this over a book? I made my stand, “My reading is for my pleasure, not yours.”

At the end of the calendar year I left for good.  And went back to reading without the interesting challenges, and the mildly entertaining cliquish conversations.  I was on my own again, still searching for people to talk books with.

It was in this cozy little community that I started to write reviews.  Everyone did it. So I joined in. And because the internet and blogging had always fascinated me, I started a blog, several times.  7Stillwell is probably the sixth or seventh iteration.

All through my BA studies, I read interesting things.  Any time I had the chance to study something cross-disciplinary between literature and history I took it.  Women in Asia, Medieval literature, anything for which I could get credit in a history degree I took.

My way of reading was deepening, my craving for getting under the ice intensified.  Some I could crack a little hole and peek through, others I could see the figures more clearly but I couldn’t find my way in.

My writing.  Well that was something altogether different.  I thought I wanted to write grand fiction stories, but realized I didn’t want the responsibility of trying to keep a fictional world balanced.  But I kept trying.

And I’d never been satisfied with my reviews.  I read others, both peer and professional. But I kept finding myself fumbling around, especially at the end of a review.  I couldn’t stick the landing sometimes. But I kept at it.

I read book blogs and thought, “Oh, I know I can do better than that.”  And I would continue reading, and writing about it. Then I got myself listed on a book blog for authors to find reviewers.  And they came calling. Not many, but a few. Some I turned away. Some I accepted and then regretted that choice. One came through like a shining star, and I asked Alexander Watson what else he was working on and would he make sure I got copies.

The really good books are the ones that make it worthwhile.  Alexander’s River Queens was the one that kept me going because it was so elegant, and he was so professional about promoting his book.  He kept me going when work was turning ugly. He reminded me why I had such a deep abiding love for books, and the sanctuary they offered me.

But I was getting more restless.  Because now I was reading books that were touted by groups of people I had respect for and wondering what I was missing.  Kafka? Yeah, he’s fine but this one story in this collection was really clunky, how did it ever get picked? Steve Martin?  Yeah … no. Ready Player One?  Okay, not an 80s kid.  Don’t get it.

By August 2018, I was in such a funk.  Work was quickly going off the rails, I was discovering more and more I had at most two friends to talk about literature and books with.  I wanted more something, everything, different.

And so there was WorldCon 76 in my backyard.  The reader friend on the East Coast convinced me to cough up the money.  It was a lot of money. But he was right, it would be a shame to miss it when it was less than five miles from home.  And, wow. I had a great time, better than any other con I’d ever been to. I was on my own, attending panels I wanted, and just being me.  What a revelation.

My very first panel of my WorldCon experience was M. Todd Gallowglas’ “LitCrit for Geeks.”  Wait. What? This can’t be right. I thought LitCrit was dry and dull and required special skills and, here’s this writer I’ve never heard of making it sound like a lot of fun.  Something worthwhile.

When I got home from the weekend, I reread my notes.  Intertextuality, metatextuality, Marxism, feminism, new historicism?  Race, gender, deconstruction, OOO? And for the next month while I fought the demons at work, and tried a new approach to reading and journaling, I thought about LitCrit.  This geek wanted more but what?

I lost my job in September.  Packed up my stuff and came home.  Moped around for a few days and thought “now what?”  The need to read, and write, remained. But I wanted to go deeper.  I knew there were ways to do that but I didn’t have a clue where to start.  Just reading and recapping weren’t enough anymore.

Little did I know that the guy I hadn’t heard of would turn out to be my mentor and show me the way to look at things differently.  Little did I know how much I was going to change. Little did I know how much work it would be and how happy it would make me. Here, finally, was something worthwhile to do with my time.

In two months, I’ve read a lot more than usual.  Feeling myself slipping into the cracks, acknowledging myself, figuring things out.  More personal growth than I thought possible. Then two books which really shook things up and made me realize while I was just starting, I was doing it.  I was reading deeper and writing better about what I read. I felt like my reviews were taking on meaning.

First, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin.  Jangled, sharp edged, arrhythmic.  There were times I’d think, “She won a Hugo for this?  What am I not seeing?” I’d put it down and think about the new theories I was learning, think about how they might apply.  I stuttered my way through until something happened which betrayed my trust in the story. I literally had to have a bit of a lie-down because I was so angry with what I had just figured out about the main characters.  I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go on.

Applying the Pearl Rule still doesn’t come easily to me, and Jemisin had won back to back Hugos three years in a row for this series.  That was important. What was I missing?

Off to the internet to read what other people thought, what other reviewers wrote.  This is unusual for me because I want to go into a book with as few preconceptions as possible.  But damn it, this was supposed to be brilliant. I had just been at WorldCon surrounded by really smart people who talked about her and this series.  Besides, my mentor suggested I join him for a group read. And he was having problems too.

What I read reassured me enough to dig back in.  To forgive Jemisin enough to finish the story. I was happy I did, and now the thinking.  Now I had permission to think and do it deeply. “Pick five schools of theory and apply them to The Fifth Season,” he said.  Oh boy.

November.  “We’re going to spend the month on A Visit From the Goon Squad,” he said.

“Oh ha ha,” I thought.  “A month?”

For all intents and purposes, I’ve read it three times.  Back to back to back. Each time finding something different, something I hadn’t picked up on before.  Three times. I don’t do that. But apparently I do now..

Jennifer Egan is brilliant.  Her collection of thirteen stories are enriched by being told in non-chronological order..  Not only is her prose engaging, her characters and their stories transcend archetype to become fully formed.

This character Bennie leads to his wife Stephanie leads to his brother-in-law Jules leads to starlet Kitty Jackson leads to …. This story about Bennie in high school leads to his visit to a band he signed who no longer make the grade which leads to …. Seamlessly, and with epiphanies.  “Oh, that explains why Sasha’s a kleptomaniac.”

Spend a month?  I could imagine spending an entire semester on it.  And all the while, with my spreadsheet and 30+ pages of notes, thinking is happening and I feel myself opening up and going deeper.  “Pick five schools of thought and apply them,” he said again.

And as with The Fifth Season, I discovered not all schools can be applied to all books.  New Criticism and Feminism will almost always apply. Trying to make my other choices apply meant looking at the material differently.  Was race a viable filter? Culture? What does culture mean in this text?

I reminded myself I was at the beginning of this fascinating journey, I couldn’t possibly know how it would, or if it could, work together.  Having to think about how there might be other ways to interpret the text made me reach, and stretch. There were days when I flailed, a lot.  “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here,” I would gripe. But I kept writing, and thinking.

It’s been two months of work.  Steady, daily work. Reading Michael Moorcock’s essays still make me anxious because he’s so damned erudite and he eloquently writes about things I’m just now learning.  Instead of skipping or stopping or throwing my mental hands up and saying, “This is too hard,” I kept at it.

I kept at it.  That was huge. I was no longer in the realm of wanting to just move on to the next book, or deciding not to write about it.  And things I’d read about process and writing from other writers whose work I enjoyed seeped in.

Here was Anne Lamott with her “shitty first draft,” from Bird by Bird.  Richard Kadrey, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley … “do the work, it’s okay to be scared, writing is hard work, and no one has to ever see what you write.”  This last perhaps as important to me as Anne Lamott’s.

Knowing Michael was the only one seeing the work I chose to show him helped.  Trusting he would tell me if I was going down the wrong road, helped. His brief encouraging comments about my mind and the great work I was doing thrilled me.

“Trust yourself,” he said.  He wasn’t in the same county, so he couldn’t hear when I laughed.  “Dude,” I thought.

I kept working through my personal grievances and anxieties.  Days when I didn’t want to get out of bed because the PTSD was making it hard.  But I did it. I got up and went to work.

Because the work is what keeps me sane right now.  And learning about different ways to dig into the text and make the connections and then write about them make me really happy.  Before September, I was prepared to just keep reading as I had been. Trying to find writing classes which didn’t really fit but were affordable and might offer some guidance, and trying to write to the specifications of assignments which made no sense to me.  That’s what I was doing before.

Now, in November, I think differently about what I’m reading.  I look for the connections, I apply filters, I think things like, “Why would she write it that way?  How does [some school of theory] apply here?” I allow myself to believe I know what I’m doing, to trust I have a lifetime’s knowledge to apply, and to know I’m really doing the work.

Examining A Visit From the Goon Squad with a spreadsheet was something I had never, ever thought to do.  But it seemed to be the best way to really dig in and pay attention.  It’s never occurred to me even once that it’s weird to be this excited about reading better and deeper, or that my writing would become stronger.  It’s not weird, it’s quite wonderful. And I look forward to doing the work every single day.

New to the Stacks: Hurley, Norton & Smith

God’s Way by Kameron Hurley
Longevity: The Wardens of Time by Caleb Smith
The Norton Anthology: Theory and Criticism

God’s War by Kameron Hurley ~read
Longevity:  The Wardens of Time by Caleb Smith ~ DNF
The Norton Anthology:  Theory and Criticism

Review: Wizardry & Wild Romance

Wizardry & Wild Romance by Michael Moorcock

Title: Wizardry & Wild Romance
Author: Michael Moorcock
Published: 2004
Publisher: Monkeybrain Books
Publisher’s Blurb:  … this invaluable work analyzes the Fantasy genre from its earliest beginnings in Medieval romances, on through the notable practitioners like Howard, Lovecraft and Tolkien, and up to the brightest lights in the field today. Insightful and often controversial, this is a book every fantasy reader should have on their shelf.

“Michael Moorcock – Extreme Librarian”
Introduction by China Miéville

“To read something that somebody else has written and have it make better sense of your own reactions than you have been able to, is a momentous thing.”  (p14)

Miéville’s central thesis, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is we should all want better, demand “vision and passion” from the epic fantasy we read.  Not because Moorcock says we should, but because so much of it has fallen into disrepair. A lot of it is imitative and limited. Fans can get caught in the Catch-22 of reading what’s available which keeps getting written because it’s what sells.

And yes, Moorcock is frustrating.  He has a lot to say, all of it supported by citations of his arguments.  His prose is dense, his meaning often obvious, but his insistence we should want better is absolutely right.  And how in the hell has he read and studied so much and written so much?

“Foreword”
Michael Moorcock

“I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.”  (p 18)

In the first paragraph, Moorcock defines what he’s writing about.  Romantic epic fantasy “whose writers invent their own Earthly histories and geographies.”  Not, I am relieved to learn, that sentimental love story rubbish churned out by the likes of Danielle Steele.

This too, resonated with me.  “I admire intelligent, disciplined, imaginative entertainment if it seems to offer me some perspective on my own life.”  I’m finally able to admit to myself that much of what I have read wasn’t bad so much as boring. Too repetitive, unambitious, and often self-congratulatory.

“I believe that critical dissection of the fantasy story into its components does not detract from the story.  Rather, it adds a new dimension to it …” This is what I’ve been fumbling around for much of my life, and was what I enjoyed most in my English classes.  The many ways to look at a work and interpret it and the richness that adds to it.

Epic fantasy then, loosely defined, are the stories told which feature exotic landscapes from the imagination of the writer, with symbols which evoke strong sensations as a way to escape and discover ourselves.  Moorcock references the escape from objective pressure, which can also mean an escape from the inward pressure we place on ourselves to survive an often unpleasant world.

—–

Each chapter title takes on an aspect of Epic Fantasy.

Chapter 1 “Origins” gives a history beginning with 16th century tales deemed Chivalric Romance and its influence on Gothic Romance.  Here, romance is defined most succinctly as exploration of the exotic. When Moorcock writes about early epic fantasy he writes, “… their chief purpose was to amaze and shock.”  While the prose may not be easily read by contemporary readers, the presence of dragons, magic, castles, ogres, doom and tragedy are instantly familiar.

Chapter 2 “The Exotic Landscape” discusses the landscape of the internal as expressed in the external.  The exotic landscape is used to distance the author/reader from reality. In some ways, as though realism is too much to abide.

An interesting brief topic was Moorcock’s discussion of “bachelor-fiction” written by the likes of Lovecraft.  “… [Lovecraft’s] more successful horror stories in which death, idealism, lust and terror of sexual intercourse are constantly associated … (p. 55)  (emphasis mine)

And then there’s this, “Too frequently one gets the impression that … most practitioners of epic fantasy read only one another’s work.”  (p. 77) This continues explaining how epic fantasy can do better by its readers. Don’t just read your peers’ work, avoid the bloat and the boring and the stereotypical by reading works in other genres as well.

Chapter 3 “The Heroes and the Heroines” focuses on the lack of mature, nuanced, emotional reactions in epic fantasy characters.  Most are adolescent, immature or “pretend-adult.” A frequent adjective he uses is “infantile.” The men are in charge, all knowledgeable and the women are fundamentally passive, waiting to be taken care of by the man.  (This is the trope which made me uncomfortable enough to go elsewhere for my reading pleasure.)

Yet, there’s hope!  Authors such as Fritz Leiber, Robin McKinley, and Gene Wolfe whose characters have “genuine passions, adult concerns, and complex motives.”

Chapter 4 “Wit and Humor” discusses the types of humor most suited for epic fantasy.  Irony and melodrama, comedy and fantasy, closely bound to one another in showing the fantastic extremes of life (fairies, dragons, etc.) along with the reversals of fate represented in farce (custard pies, or pratfalls).

Comedy adds a dimension to the characters and the plot.  Humans are complex, and often use humor to survive the daily grind.  So too should epic fantasy characters.

It’s in this chapter, Moorcock explores the idea that fantasy should “have at its source some fundamental compassion, … ambition to show … what human life is actually about.” (p. 116)  Further, he looks for readings which help us (as readers) understand how to deal with problems and respond in a positive manner to injustice and frustrations which hound us all.

Chapter 5 Epic Pooh” is Moorcock’s tirade against authors such as Tolkien who write childish books and parade them as gentler adult books.  The authors who preach moderation and politeness. Those who do not explore the harsher and extreme truths of life.

Moorcock’s explanation, “Writers like Tolkien take you to the edge of the Abyss and point out the excellent tea-garden at the bottom, showing you the steps carved into the cliff and reminding you to be a bit careful because the hand-rails are a trifle shaky as you go down, they haven’t got the approval yet to put a new one in …” (p. 120) tickles me no end.   And while I happen to enjoy Winnie the Pooh, I have no illusions that A. A. Milne wrote anything other than polite, happy nursery rhymes.

Chapter 6 “Excursions and Developments” is the final chapter and deals with the thesis that categorization is destructive.  Because it forces authors to pigeonhole themselves in order to sell books and attract an audience. (cf it doesn’t have to be good to sell in Chapter 1.)

This made me ponder how I read.  I read books, in search of good stories, not genre.  Yes, I like a good dragon tale, time-travel, cyberpunk, etc. but I like other things.

I read John Scalzi because I like his stories, not because he writes military science fiction.

Myke Cole tells the story of a village bullied by the religious government and the  teen-aged girl who comes to the rescue. Strong female character (we need Heloise today), story about standing up to the bullies.  That it’s categorized as fantasy meant little to me.

The Astronaut Lady series by Mary Robinette Kowal was a ripping good tale which read like the alternate history it is.  But I read it for the women who fought for equal rights in the space program.

Conclusion

Wizardry & Wild Romance is rich, dense, and filled with authors I’ve never heard of.  It’s also one I will gladly read repeatedly as I learn more about critical writing.  Moorcock’s discussion of what is good in epic fantasy, and what isn’t, can be transferred to other genres, I’m sure.  Albeit without the dragons and wizards, etc.

New to the Stacks: Goons and Projections

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film – edited by Lou Anders

A Visit From the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan ~ read
Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film – edited by Lou Anders ~ read