Monday, June 9, 2008

other people's books

Becoming a writer--or maybe I should say, becoming a conscious writer--is supposed to screw up your reading. You become very conscious of what the writer is doing, whether you'd do it the same way, worse or better. You groan when they break the 'rules' and may be bitterly envious that these other damn writers can get away with it, why can't you? You feel smug at spotting the foreshadowing. And so on. It becomes very difficult to read as a reader, and not as a writer.
It may be that I was somewhat inoculated against that, by having been taught to be a conscious reader from early on. When your father teaches English, and loves to teach, you get taught. And hey, I was Daddy's Girl--my brother was the Boy, who would Carry on the Name, but I was the one who loved words and language. (The funny thing about this is that I kept the Name, and my brother changed his.) So my bonding with my dad was very much about taking stories apart and seeing how they worked, taking words apart and finding their roots and branches.
I've probably said this before, but this early practice made it difficult for me to take lit-crit quite seriously, because I was introduced to it as a child's game. Spot the symbol, name that allegory!
In other words, my reading experience was already compromised, but I didn't mind.

The best approximation I have of the shift from unconscious to conscious reader is what I experienced as I taught myself to paint, by copying Giotto and other early Ren painters. I'd had a vague idea of balance and composition, probably from reading the Childcraft volume on art, but I had to learn how to model, how to use highlight and shading to make flat paint imitate 3-dimensional form.
So I went from 'ooh, pretty picture' to 'hm, that drapery' and 'wow, trompe l'oeil shouldn't be that simple', and learned how to break down the illusion into simple pieces. I began to be understand what watercolours could do that oils couldn't, and vice-versa, even though I only worked with acrylics (and yolk, glair and size for medieval painting, but that's another topic). I started seeing how effects were achieved, even though I didn't have the mastery to achieve them myself.
But I didn't feel that this screwed up the way I looked at paintings. It made me a better viewer, a more active and responsive one. ('better' here means 'better than I was', not 'better than some other person like you', by the way)

Between revision sessions, and in that weird lethargic hiatus while I was coughing up phlegm, I managed to read a few books, though the TBR pile(s) still loom(s) over Mark's side of the bed.

A Telling of Stars, by Caitlin Sweet.
I picked this up at Munro's, because the title sounded cool. The cover art is by Martin Springett, who was the Artist GoH at VCon last year. My copy is signed, though I didn't realise that until I began reading it, because there was no Signed Copy sticker on the cover. This story is gorgeous. I mean that quite literally--the writing is lush and lovely and jeweled, like Dunsany, or Clark Ashton Smith, or Patricia McKillip when she's in the lovely-mode. The world of the story is full of prodigal invention, without being overwhelming or confusing.
The plot is very nearly anti-fantasy. Jaele is the daughter of a fisher family, enraptured by stories of the warrior queen Galha, who defeated and banished the Sea Raiders. When a party of Raiders murder her family, she takes her father's dagger and goes for vengeance, trailing the outcast Raider who cut her mother's throat. Along the way, she meets strange peoples and strange people. She tells them of her quest, and they feed her, sympathise, bind her wounds, tell her their own stories, befriend her and sometimes fall in love with her, but none of them join her quest or follow her banner. When she finally confronts the man who's been her target and (in a way) her companion all along, it doesn't go as expected, and that isn't where the story ends, either. The resolution isn't about her revenge, and it isn't about her falling in love (though she does both).
Not everyone will enjoy Telling (gosh, as if there's any book that everyone enjoys). Some readers will find it frustrating, and Jaele isn't easy to like, in her single-minded absorption. It's beautifully written, it's thoroughly imagined, and it messes with the reader's expectations. So much will depend on your tolerance for being messed with.

Firecracker, by Sean Stewart.
I have the UK edition, by Orion Books. The US edition is titled Perfect Circle, and Evil Editor has an author chat with Stewart. This book is awful damn good, is what. Not in the remotest way something I'd be able to write, which makes it quite comfortable to read (so I do read as a writer in some ways).
William 'Dead' Kennedy can see and talk to ghosts. In fact, he seems to be better at understanding ghosts than he does with live people, like his ex-wife and his daughter. While the seeing dead people trope has been heavily worked in the last while, the working-poor characters and setting take it to unexpected places. I have a personal loathing for books where poor people end up losing everything or are portrayed as hopeless aimless losers in the name of 'realism' (The Pearl, by Steinbeck is the former, but that's another rant entirely). Firecracker's characters may be poor, and may make bad decisions, but they're not fools and they're not pitiable. And it starts with a ghost and an explosion--you can't go wrong with that.

Love Walked In, by Marisa de los Santos.
Occasionally, yes, I do read non-genre books. I'm something of a sucker for adult books with child pov characters, always have been since I was a child myself. (I'm also a sucker for books that start with an episode of the characters as children.) Partly it was curiosity at how adults portrayed children in books for each other, which was quite different from the way they portrayed children in books for children. So, what I liked very much about Love was the character Clare, an 11 year old whose mother has a breakdown, and whose estranged father isn't paying attention. Clare's story alternates by chapter with the story of Cornelia, her father's girlfriend, who takes charge of her after her mother disappears.
Clare isn't totally believable as an 11 year old. I'd buy her as 12 or 13, but then she'd be getting close to puberty, and some aspects of the story wouldn't work--her crush on Teo would be less innocent, for instance. But I liked her a lot anyways, as a bright and vulnerable child trying to cope with adults who weren't doing their part. The story woke right up when she came into it.
Cornelia's half, not so much. Cornelia angsted a lot about how she wasn't amounting to anything, but everyone loved her, even Clare went into ecstacies over how Cornelia decorated her apartment, for instance. And she worked at a coffee shop with every regular so quirky and cute they must have come from Central Casting. Gah. All A Bit Much, Really. But quite readable, in a popcorn way, and I didn't pay full price for it.
By the way, what is it with the trend of book covers showing photographs of little girl's legs and feet? Time Traveler's Wife did it, and now it seems to be everywhere.


Lulu said...

Have you read Mr. Sandman by Barbara Gowdy?

And how do you feel aobut The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck? It changed my life!

batgirl said...

You're way ahead of me on mainstream lit - I usually confine myself to reading book reviews. Tell me about Mr. Sandman?

I had to read the Pearl and The Red Pony in high school and was _so_ put off by Steinbeck that I never read anything else of his except Travels With Charlie, and that only because my mother promised it wasn't depressing. I'm not at all sure I could deal with Grapes of Wrath.