Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night was the topic of discussion at the RS book group last week. It’s one of my favorite books ever, and I was hoping to share the sense of awe I felt when I finished reading it for the first time. It’s a beautifully, densely, cleverly written work about love, truth, and integrity, all wrapped up in a mystery novel. It’s one of the few books I’ve read since my teens where I felt that intensity of involvement I miss so much from my childhood reading.

We had a great discussion about the book, with many meaningful insights, but somebody mentioned something that puzzled me.
“Sometimes I felt like there was too much description,” she said. “Like she could have cut out some of the words.”
I’ve heard this complaint from other people about books I’ve suggested, like books by Mary Stewart for instance. And I don’t understand it. How is there too much description in this?
The village of Hohenwald was much smaller than Oberhausen. It lay a mile or so behind the main road, in a pretty hanging valley, and was little more than a cluster of houses grouped round its church whose tower rose, crowned with a bell of grey-green shingles, above splayed roofs and gables of red tile. An arched stone bridge spanned a narrow mountain river, and led what traffic it could into the cobbled square. To south and west the land fell away in smiling orchards and fields of corn, some of them cut, gold among the greens, while to north and east the mountains lifted their stepped ramparts of pine forests. The verges of the gravel road were white with dust. [From Airs above the Ground, by Mary Stewart]

Compare it with this:

Ulicia wiped her fingers at the warm wetness over her eyes and held out her hand; her fingertips glistened with blood. As if emboldened by her example. some of the others cautiously did the same. Each of them had bloody scratches on their eyelids, eyebrows, and cheeks from trying desperately, but futilely, to claw their eyes open, to wake themselves from the snare of sleep, in a vain attempt to escape the dream that was not a dream.

Ulicia struggled to clear the fog from her mind. It must have been a simple nightmare.

Wait. I have to interrupt here. A simple nightmare? They're scratching their faces bloody and trying to claw their eyes open, and she thinks it's a simple nightmare?! Whatever.

She forced herself to look away from the flame, at the other women. Sister Tovi hunched in a lower bunk opposite, the thick rolls of flesh at her sides seeming to sag in sympathy with the morose expression on her wrinkled face as she watched the lamp. Sister Cecilia’s habitually tidy, curly gray hair stood out in disarray, her incessant smile replaced by an ashen mask of fear as she stared up from the lower bunk next to Tovi. Leaning forward a bit, Ulicia glanced at the bunk above. Sister Armina, not nearly as old as Tovi or Cecilia, but closer to Ulicia’s age and still attractive, appeared haggard. With shaking fingers, the usually staid Armina wiped the blood from her eyelids.

Across the confining walkway, in the bunks above Tovi and Cecilia, sat the two youngest and most self-possessed Sisters. Ragged scratches marred the flawless skin of Sister Nicci’s cheeks. Strands of her blond hair stuck to the tears, sweat, and blood on her face. Sister Merissa, equally beautiful, clutched a blanket to her naked breast, not in modesty, but in shuddering dread. Her long, dark hair was a tangled mat. [From Blood of the Fold, by Terry Goodkind]

So is the fold in question the one on their eyelids? Or does it refer to Sister Tovi’s thick rolls of flesh? I don’t know. Perhaps I shouldn’t complain. Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste. Actually, reading it over now it doesn’t seem quite so bad (although this is only a few paragraphs from a pages-long section, so you’re not getting the full effect) – but as I was reading this the first time, I was so frustrated by the plodding pace and overly adjectivized description that I felt a bit like scratching my own eyes out.

Here’s another selection from the same book that may be a better illustration of “too many words”:

Richard felt the hackles on the back of his neck rising.

The definition of hackles is the hair on the back of one’s neck. There are no hackles on anyone’s ankles or abdomen or anywhere else, so that phrase is redundant.
Terry Goodkind is a popular fantasy author (although he doesn’t consider himself a fantasy author, just an author who uses fantasy to tell his stories), with a series of fat books (tending to 500+ pages) to his credit. I'm not saying he’s a bad writer, because I don’t think he is, but he is loquacious.
Incidentally, I recently heard that a new tv series based on Goodkind’s wizard books is coming this fall. I'm kind of excited about that and plan on giving it a try. I'm a pretty big fan of sci-fi and fantasy movies. I’ve even watched some of those cheez-fests on the Sci Fi channel. But when it comes to reading sci-fi or fantasy books, for some reason I'm a lot pickier. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are among my all-time favorite books, but no other fantasy I’ve tried to read since has done anything for me but cause scornful mirth. I remember when The Sword of Shannara came out back in the day. My older brother liked it and tried to get me to read it, but he gave up pretty quickly, mostly because I made him mad by calling it The Sword of Sha-Na-Na. He also tried to get me to read the Thomas Covenant books by Stephen R Donaldson. I started the first one, but couldn’t get much past the first few chapters.
One of my problems with reading fantasy is that it all seems so derivative: cheap Tolkien knock-offs crossed with dialogue from 1950s knight movies. Another problem I have is that I start laughing as soon as I read the names. Like no one in a fantasy world can be named Bob or Lisa:
Skreeaw of Wheet pulled back his bowstring and shouted to Drumplyx. “Your offenses have not gone unnoticed, you misshapen whlamgrul. Duke Shrwgnot shall hear of this when he comes to Xxnilenicnek.” Drumplyx snorted in derision. “Ha! Blxrwyg is dealing with Shrwgnot as we speak!”
And so on.
Sci-fi is a little different. I’ve had a little better luck finding stuff I can read in that genre. I'm not a big fan of the short story, sci-fi or otherwise (with notable exceptions that I won’t go into here), but I’ve read and enjoyed a number of novels. I read 2001: A Space Odyssey and really liked it. It made sense of the mind-numbingly dull movie I’d seen.
Then I read 2010: The Odyssey Continues and was very disappointed. In that case, I preferred the film. I’ve read some Ray Bradbury and some Isaac Asimov and some of the Star Wars and Star Trek novels. I don’t know if the Hitchhiker’s Guide stuff counts as sci-fi, but I really like those books, too.
Even so, I’ve had a problem with sci-fi at times. Sometimes it’s too hard, focusing too much on technology and not on character. I feel character is probably the most important element in writing, because if none of this matters to our development or insight to ourselves as human beings, what’s the difference? And then, for a long time, women were pretty much non-existent or merely ornamental in sci-fi. And I find it hard to read something where there isn’t at least one intelligent, likable female character.
So, I'm always on the lookout for well-written – and non-repetitive – stuff to read, regardless of genre. And I keep hoping to experience again that sense of awe. 


List, list, O, list!

The Big Read says that the average adult has read only 6 of the top 100 books they’ve printed.

Well, who are The Big Read and what are they to me? Lists are only as good as the people who make them. And with that meaningless observation, I shall add that one of these days I'm going to post a list of 100 books that I think people should have read. And then we'll see how things stack up.

1) Look at the list and bold those you have read
2) Italicize those you intend to read.

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (I've only read the first two volumes)
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (maybe I'll read it, maybe I won't)
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter and the Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter and the Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy (I was supposed to read this for a college lit class. I started it, skimmed through the middle, and read the end)
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot (I don't know if I'll ever complete this book, but I have to say it has one of the best endings of any book ever)
28. A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (I don't intend to ever complete this book, but I have to say it has one of the most annoying endings of any book ever)
30. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson (Who? by whom?)
32. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett (What is this doing on the list?)
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (the whole flippin' unabridged version, too)
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher (Why is this book on the list?)
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts and Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (skimmed through it, stopping to read at places)
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce (everybody's read the ending, right?)
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane and Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls in Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

So, I notice that I don't intend to read many of the ones I haven't. I'd much rather re-read the ones I have than read for the first time some of the books. I mean, really, Kane and Abel? Bridget Jones's Diary? It just seems that there are a lot of books not on the list that ought to be read before (or instead of) reading some of the titles that are on the list.


I tell you, unless the little horse is returned we shall all suffer the curse of hell

Oscar Wilde once said, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life." Oscar Wilde never knew my life. I’ve mentioned my desire to bring to life the art that is Mary Poppins, but that’s only one of a handful of books that made me wish what I read was real. Rifles for Watie was another.

Rifles for Watie is a Newbery Medal book (1958) that I discovered in the school library when I was in junior high. It happened like this:

There was this creepy girl at church who got mad at something I said (probably I called her a creep, but I don’t remember), and so she shoved me really hard. I fell backward and landed on my right wrist, spraining it pretty badly. A couple of days later, I reinjured my wrist when I slipped and fell in the kitchen while doing the dishes – this was before we had a dishwasher, and probably even before we had a color tv, which has nothing to do with my story but gives you an idea of how long ago in the olden days this was, which was why our parents were making us wash dishes by hand. We each had to take a week, and it got so dull standing there at the sink, putting off the inevitable, that many times I would make up stories, like for example about naval battles between the knives and the forks, and the plates were their armadas, and that probably explains the water on the floor and why I slipped.

My mom took me to the doctor, who said my wrist wasn’t broken. He gave me a splint thing and an Ace bandage to keep it immobilized and told me to wear them for two weeks.

So for the next month I cut PE, staying in the library after lunch ended instead of going to class. The library was one of my preferred places to be while at school (the others were Miss Quade’s choir room and Mrs Robinson’s English class). And our librarian, Miss Nelson, was kind and patient and she never kicked me out. Anyway, during that time I read lots and lots of books, and Rifles for Watie was one of them.

After a month, I knew I had to start going back to PE. I was a little nervous, but I just showed up one day and, when the teacher asked where I’d been, I explained about my arm (I had put the splint and the Ace bandage on again that morning, anticipating the need for some convincing special effects). The teacher then explained with equal parts clarity and exasperation that I should’ve let her know beforehand what was going on, but she let me back in class and there were no negative consequences. I think that’s the only time I ever got away with long-term class cutting. Somehow the same tactic didn’t work in my college biology class.

So, yeah, that’s how I came to discover Rifles for Watie. I liked it so much I read it a couple of more times over the ensuing years. It got me really interested in the Civil War and I did a lot of extra reading in the Encyclopedia Americana and other books, trying to learn as much as I could about it. Naturally, then, I wanted to make it part of my life. Or my life part of it. But who fights a Civil War on one’s own? I decided to enlist the aid of my two younger brothers. I suppose they thought we were just going to play army again, but with a little twist – Civil War instead of World War II, which is what we usually played. But I was going for the full effect, including all the attendant discomforts of army life that I’d read about in Rifles for Watie. So one morning I snuck quietly into their bedroom at four o'clock and shook them awake so that they could forage for food and make ready for the day’s battle. It was cold. It was disorienting. It was a sense of opportunity lying just ahead. It was just the feeling I expected someone might feel early in the morning of an unknown experience. My brothers did not feel it.

“Are you crazy?” the older one said. “It’s still dark!”

“But this is the time to make ready,” I insisted.

“Go away,” he said, pulling the covers over his head. The younger one turned over and muttered something. I'm not sure he was really awake to begin with.

So they deserted the Union army and went back to sleep. I retreated to the front yard, where I sat on the dewy lawn, staring up at the stars and wishing with all my heart that I could go to Gettysburg and find a Minie ball lying in the grass.

My life definitely did not imitate art...at least not on that occasion.

Last week was our family’s bi-annual reunion. It’s always the same time of year, and there are always three or four people having their birthdays (or half-birthdays) around that time, so there’s always a group birthday party with a piñata for the kids. I think now’s as good a time as any to say that I don’t really like piñatas. They are creepy-looking. And I think they bring out the worst in children. But, it’s not my birthday, so I don’t interfere. Anyway, this year, the party had a horse theme because one of my nieces loves horses. Well, who doesn’t? So they had a little piñata of a horse, and they beat it to a pulp and went scrambling after the candy, and then we had cake.

I always stay up really late during reunion time, because that way I get so tired that I no longer wish to avoid sleeping on the ground. (My desire to be a soldier in the Union army, with all its attendant discomforts, had long ago passed away.) So that night, after staying up till after midnight playing Rummikub with one of my sisters, I finally staggered into our tent and, with the aid of a feeble flashlight, found my sleeping bag without tripping over the air mattress or Gary. I put my hand on the sleeping bag in preparation for sitting down to take off my shoes, and then I felt it – there was something under the covers, something roundish that made a slight rustling noise when I touched it. I pulled back the top of the bag....

I did not imitate art by screaming in revulsion. I just laughed a lot.