On Meeting Idols

May 13th, 2013

I met Ursula Le Guin the other day. It was a short meeting, at which I asked her to sign my copy of The Left Hand of Darkness. It’s the copy of the book that belonged to my father, which I nicked when I went off to college, carrying away the few classic science/speculative fiction novels he had in his personal library. I try to keep these author encounters short these days. I want to meet them, and Le Guin is possibly my favorite living author. I hope you’ll forgive me, but favorite author is a difficult choice to make.

Le Guin was appearing in support of an adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness. I will be seeing that adaptation in a few days. She was interviewed by an OPB radio host who did a fair job of asking questions. Le Guin is, of course, an old hand at this. It is understandable if a few of the questions seemed rote or trite to her. She handled them with grace and just the amount of elderstateswomanly harumph that she has earned (as much as she wants).

After the appearance, I went over and asked her to sign my book. A young woman of 8-12 in costume had just done so, and I felt a little silly. Le Guin asked me if I wanted my name in the book. I always feel a little odd about that, so I said no. She immediately said she understood, but I suspected she figured my copy (an old Ace softcover) would soon be on Ebay. I considered explicitly telling her I would never do that, but it seemed like I would sound like I was protesting too much.

Triumphant, signed book in the back of my cycling jacket, I returned home, confident I had managed for once to encounter a beloved author without making an ass of myself. (I often joke that embarrassing myself in front of authors is my superpower.) As I rode, I became more convinced that she figured me for reselling the book, which blunted my feelings of triumph. When I got home I discovered that the ancient copy, now with author signature, had broken in half in my pocket. The Ace spine, a cheap production not meant for many rereads, had broken in the middle of one of my favorite scenes, with Genly and Estraven crossing the ice. I was left with two halves of a book, thinking about why we try to get author signatures in the first place. The stuff the author considered meaningful is already on the page.

The Year of Long Books

December 27th, 2012

I don’t think I’ll declare 2012 a banner year in my particular life. Many things that I had intended to do with the year went undone, many of the goals I set for the year went unmet. But there were positive things in it, and a bit of a reversal of one of my long held opinions.

I read a lot of long books this year.

I have, in the past, used this space to extoll the virtues of shorter fiction. Friend will not be surprised to find I nodded along with Ian McEwan’s short essay on the virtues of the novella. There are a lot of long books out there, and it takes a lot of our precious time to read them. Why waste your time on them? Because sometimes, even I have to admit, they are worth it.

What amazes me is that I am backing off on my previous stance in a year when I read such frustrating long books. On the list of very long form fiction I read this year, you can find 1Q84 (which I found to be inferior to almost all of Murakami’s prior work, despite critics declaring it his magnum opus). You can also find the first five books of the Song of Ice and Fire (which has numerous length and time based detractors), the two published parts of the the Kingkiller Chronicle (book 2 is almost as long as the entire damn Lord of the Rings trilogy, and begins to drag), and Reamde (enjoyable if totally disposable Stephenson. I also toyed with the Baroque cycle, the Ramayana, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Gormengahst, without really starting in on them. You can also add a few more, because every year is the year I intend to read Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and Ulysses. I just never get around to those. And my friend Colin always loved Mason & Dixon, so I’ll probably give that a shot some day, despite disagreeing with him about Delillo’s Underworld.

So, why have I changed my mind? Middlemarch. I read it in parts over the whole year and it rekindled the idea that by attempting more in the long form, more could be achieved. I’d stumbled through Bleak House in 2011 and hadn’t hated it, but as with most Dickens had been unable to look past what I see as the flaws (for all his reputation for brilliant characters, most of them strike me as single note entities existing as a parody of the human condition). George Eliot’s characters felt real to me. By the end, though the setting is as limited as many other English country novels, I had remembered that by risking the attempt of the enormous, greater effect can be achieved. It was a refreshing feeling. It also got me to add Daniel Deronda to the list of larger novels I plan to attempt.

I also read a fair number of shorter books with had either no effect or struggled to survive the very conceit under which they were conceived. I’m looking at you Sugar Frosted Nut-Sack. It was the first year as a reader that I’ve abandoned books with any regularity. I almost always go back to books, no matter how long it takes. I maintain a list. I maintain too many lists. But it is unlikely that I will ever pick up The Thin Place or The Tragedy of Arthur again. Despite recommendations from people I trust, the voices of both these books left me very cold. That’s not to say that their authors failed, but I appear to have finally reached a point where I can say, “it’s not you, it’s both of us,” to authors.

So that leaves me with 10 books of 800+ pages on a list of 202 books that I still intend to read before I die. There will be others of course, but these are the ones that have been set aside to read for reasons other than a particular spine serendipitously falling into my hands. Perhaps I’ll get to all 10 in 2013 (highly unlikely). But at least I won’t be picking them up grudgingly.

A while back I meant to say more about this stuff, but I’m going to just close the tabs…

Apparently there is a backlash against Ian McEwan going on. I can’t help but think that part of this is that there is a subset of readers (of whom I am often a part) who want authors to be perfect creators of wonderful gem like novels that change your life every time you read one, and are always as good as the last. There’s a reason we’re so often disappointed. McEwan also suffers from being successful enough that other people get a kick out of hating him. I’ve been guilty of this one from time to time as well, though not direct at him. The drummer from Phish once said he’d know they’d made it when people started hating them just for who they were, not their music. I’m guessing McEwan isn’t loosing a lot of sleep over this one. I’m also guessing that a lot of the people who are saying they hate him now are just disappointed because he didn’t live up to their over inflated expectations.

Mark Millar on the other hand I frequently feel is presented as far deeper than he really is. Much of his stuff seems like empty crap done for shock value. He probably isn’t loosing any sleep over me though either.

Singular They

December 28th, 2009

Donkeylicious has a post citing the Bard for the use of they as singular, which is both convenient and technically forbidden. Having had a talk with a professor about this very issue. (I hadn’t done it, but I’d screwed up my use of ‘effect’ which was embarrassing for an English major.) This needs to become accepted. I had no idea that Shakespeare had done this, and am glad it was pointed out. The other options, as they point out in the post, are either inadequate or absurd. Fifty years from now, they will be available for use as singular. The question is really how long it takes to get there.

Snark

September 2nd, 2009

Denby’s article on snark for the Guardian is better and wider ranging than it was, perhaps, intended to be. I found myself thinking about how I talked in a way that I had not since last reading Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, which was more recent than you would think. I have a friend who reads 1984 once a year, or at least used to. I might have to do that with Politics and the English Language, the most telling part is how much of it I realize applies to me, every time I read it.

Through Bookslut, I stumbled onto this plea for better Hugo shortlists.

It was interesting and inspiring, but I think it may miss the point of why many people read science fiction. Genre readers are often very similar. Mystery readers are an excellent example, some of them churning through the books in the field at a pace that astonishes and may scare people a little. Looking around the advice on the tubes, you find that mystery novelists especially, and genre writers in general, general are editing one book, working on writing the next, and promoting the one that just got published. The industry has to keep pace with the most voracious readers with low sales and high volume, which doesn’t serve the authors very well, and doesn’t let the books achieve anything beyond a workmanlike mediocrity most of the time. Those sorts of readers are looking for escapism more than erudition, and if there are a large number of voters who are that kind of voracious reader, for better or worse, it will show up as mediocrity in the listed books.

Also of note from that post was that the new Le Guin was good if flawed. This is heartening news. I had given up on her after I felt she phoned in several novels upon closing up the Earthsea cycle.

1984

July 21st, 2009

A few of my friends have kindles, and I’m sure they’ve all read 1984 and have paper copies, so it won’t have effected them much that the title was removed in an act of pure irony by Amazon, ostensibly at the request of Orwell’s estate. This is yet another lesson (many of them provided by the estate of James Joyce) in poor management of your own intellectual capital.

In other, personal, book news, rereading The Diamond Age is a good thing, it holds up very well when you know what is going to happen already. This is a feat that surprisingly few books manage.

On David Copperfield

January 4th, 2009

I finished David Copperfield (Modern Library Classics)
tonight. It was an odd experience. Because I have been reading it in installments delivered to my email, and because those installments totaled over 400, I feel like I might have some small indication of what it was like to read it when it first came out. I grant that there were larger chunks when it was first published, but it was strung out over a similar length of time.

When reading Dickens slowly like this, I find that the sins of which he is accused, the overly repetitious characterization and his general loquaciousness seem to fall away. You need a refresher on some of the charaters sometimes, and by the end, David is like an old friend saying goodbye. Maybe not your best friend, but someone you meet for coffee from time to time and catch up on the latest with him. And it is a bit of a one sided conversation, but you put up with it because you always have.

Some Bright Sides

June 17th, 2008

Well… with the computer out of commission, I found myself unable to get much work done on the big project. That was frustrating, as this week was supposed to be the big push to finish it, I should have been able to do that by the end of the month.

So I wanted to be able to get something done on that front while I waited to get my computer back, and was busy grousing to myself that the other computer was the one with all the software licenses. This gave me a chance to use Google Docs. I’d never done so before, and I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s not going to get me to abandon what I normally use, but it’s fine in the short term.

It also reminds me that I’m a little crazy for having a program just to do outlines. And despite that program, I’d let my outline of the text fall off in the past few chapters and I was flying blind. Without the main text though, I’m outlining the last eight chapters finally, which should speed things up if it is anything like when I was last working with an outline. Not my most efficient use of time, these past few weeks, if loosing my primary computer forces me to get cracking.

Also, as a PSA for the few people who read this in Minneapolis: (and some who may be coming into town for the wedding) Dreamhaven is moving. What does this mean? They’re not looking forward to having to haul all their stuff, so for this month there is a big sale. Used paperbacks are 75% off original cover price, with a minimum of 75¢. That means most books are under a dollar in their used section. A lot of the comics are 10¢. The other day I walked out with a pile I could barely carry for just over $15. You should check it out if you are in town.

Tokyo Knife Attack

June 8th, 2008

There are very few times in life that you can look to and say, “Now I know that ‘x’ book changed my life.” Usually, whatever way a book might have changed you is subtle and insidious. You never notice the choice you made or the shift in your reactions.

Today was not like that. My reading of this BBC article was changed by having read Haruki Murakami, I’m not sure for the better. My initial reaction, upon reading that the knifing happened on the same day as another knifing from 2001, was to think that it would be a Murakami story in a few years. A lot of his work is about finding order and shape to the seemingly meaningless events that surround us. Once the matching dates came in, it just felt like one of his stories. Combine that with an increase in mass stabbings… and well, I start to feel a little guilty thinking that way.

Anastasia and Fear

June 2nd, 2008

One of the worst parts of writing, to me, is the fear that I’m just running along the same lines as some book that someone else published and I never read. I have been working with the idea for the current project for about two years now, while I finished up the last one and read for this one, and then started writing about a year and a half ago.

During that time I read Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Absurdistan. Both were pretty good books, despite frustrations and flaws that I had with them. Nothing is perfect after all, and I’m a fussy bitch of a reader. But I also spent an undue amount of time while reading these books thinking, “is this too much like what I’m writing?” Well, of course it isn’t, because I’m writing my own damn story, and while there are elements of the stories that I can’t help a little overlap with, that’s all of fiction. There are only so many things you can put in a novel, and any novel, sufficiently long, will have overlap with something.

Nevertheless, because my main character thinks he is a relative of Grand Duchess Anastasia, I have been feeling a little like the man in Ficciones who sets out to write Don Quixote from scratch.

Today I found out that there was a thriller published in 2004 that had the Romanovs as the central element, I had a long period of panic that I was sitting on over one hundred and twenty thousand words that were too close to this other one. I had to read the wikipedia entry on it to satisfy myself that it was sufficiently divergent, a standard antiquities/supernatural/thriller in the style that a certain Mr. Brown, not to be confused with the Browne who will be a groomsman at my wedding, has made popular.

And even then all I did was shift the worry from accusations that I’d stolen and idea to the idea that I’m working on terrain everyone is sick to death of. That may be due to the fact that everyone is a little tired of the Anastasia stuff. Hell, I’m tired of it, but I tell myself that it’s not such big part of the plot that it sinks everything.

Back to Books

April 1st, 2008

Today, after poking at it for a while, and spending a bunch of time outlining plot points, I got back to the big writing project.

The words came fast and easy as I sat there. It was quite a relief. Over the past few months I’ve been working on getting into grad school and getting married. Now, with a lot of that off that taken care of (though both of those things are far from done) I’ve cleared away enough time to hopefully finish this before school starts. I was quite nervous at the start. For a while I had been quite regular about sitting down and writing. I had tracked the rate at which I produced words and dropped other tasks when I wasn’t making my count. When I needed to study for the LSAT I abandoned the writing for a while. I probably should have done that earlier, but it was what it was.

That was months ago, and all the little tasks had kept writing on a back burner. The story was still there, but I hadn’t given it the time it was due. Writing is at its best when you can fall into a sort of a trance. The editing doesn’t work so well that way, but the first draft is always more fun when it happens. I didn’t get there today, but I did manage to get solid work done without staring at the screen wondering what came next. So that was nice. I’ve only got a few more weeks of work and then it’s nothing but the writing and the wedding before grad school.

In other news, the latest update of WordPress seems to have broken the old url for this blog. Before I got ianmacleod.net, I just had a subdomain on my friend’s deepthought.org. I’m looking into how I want to fix that, as it seems to be related to how the new version handles the database. While I work at an ISP, that’s not something I generally work with. In fact I never really touch them. It’s a whole branch of computer knowledge that I’d always meant to get involved in. The current job did not really work for that though, and it seems I’m likely to remain ignorant about it for the foreseeable future. The writing projects feel more pressing to me now than the computer skills. Then, for the next five years or so, I’m probably not going to want to use what little spare time I have on more enjoyable things.

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