A Stranger in Olondria: I wouldn’t go for a visit.

Can we talk about how great the "X% done | N hours left" feature is? Because when a book is dragging, it's pretty much a godsend.
Can we talk about how great the “X% done | N hours left” feature is? Because when a book is dragging, it’s pretty much a godsend.

I’ve finished my second whole book on the Kobo and am plowing into my third. Yet for the past few days I’ve been wrestling with how to talk about A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. I had to read a couple outside reviews to nail down my feelings. The positive one points out that it’s a love letter to books and reading, while at the same time exploring the tension between history, literate societies and oral societies. The frustrated one more mirrors my own experience, in that I spent most of the novel irritated by the ponderously layered language and cultural constructs, and by the “boy meets dying girl, dead girl haunts boy, boy falls in love but must set both of them free” plot.

That’s not actually a spoiler, that’s the jacket summary, but I came to this book knowing nothing about it, only that it was supposed to be good and that it featured a non-European fantasy world, which, hurrah! And as I was reading, it occurs to me how much media I consume in which I sort of know what’s coming — you’ve read the book before you watch the movie, or it’s a remake or a mash-up or it’s based on a fairy tale, or you can see the plot coming a mile away. I didn’t have a clue what the book would be about for the first hundred or so (ebook) pages. It gets off to a very slow start with little indication of what the story will become.

The experience of reading the book gave me much more to chew on than the book itself. Let me try and break it down. I found myself dealing with three main threads:

  • What’s the world look like?
  • Is a haunting plot the same as a colonialism/globalization plot?
  • Why do I keep reading books that, in the end, I cannot connect with?

Continue reading “A Stranger in Olondria: I wouldn’t go for a visit.”

Alif and ereaders: A paired adventure for the 21st century

Alif the Unseen
Alif the Unseen, the debut novel from G. Willow Wilson, scores big for me on world-building but not so much on pacing, plotting, characterization and the mechanics of writing.

I’m going to be reviewing two experiences here today. One is the debut novel of journalist/essayist/graphic novelist G. Willow Wilson, and the other is reading my first novel on an ereader — in this case, a Kobo Glo. Both have their ups and downs, but I’m finding one more fulfilling than the other. Continue reading “Alif and ereaders: A paired adventure for the 21st century”

All My Hotspurs

Kenneth Branagh is the only Benedick; anyone else is just mouthing the lines. That’s what comes of having seen his Much Ado About Nothing at a very formative age. Even with the story reconfigured, as in the BBC Shakespeare Retold series, while I adore Damian Lewis’s take, it still looks odd to me.

I’m having this issue with a history play at the moment. Over the summer, the BBC released The Hollow Crown, a tetralogy spanning Richard II, both the Henry IVs and Henry V. Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s history plays have never really been my thing (I tend more towards the weird stuff), I was always going to watch these productions: Tom Hiddleston plays Prince Hal/Henry V. Now, he does a magnificent job, as does everyone on the cast and crew, but for me, someone else stole the show. Thanks to Joe Armstrong, I’ve become a total Hotspur fangirl. Continue reading “All My Hotspurs”

Esther by genre

Elphine, a character in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, spends her days dancing in fields, dressing in fanciful costumes and generally gadding about like a sprite of the woods. She also announces to the heroine, Flora Poste, that she writes poetry. Flora, being the wry Jazz Age society girl (and would-be author) that she is, discourages publicizing such a hobby, particularly to men. Myself, I prefer the opposite tack. If a fella can’t grok that I’m a writer and reader of weird things, we probably wouldn’t get along in the long term anyway.

My OKCupid profile announces near the top that I enjoy writing hard-to-categorize genre fiction. Last week, for the first time, someone sent me a message using that as his hook. How would I categorize my fiction, given the chance? I haven’t yet taken him up on the opportunity to explain in person, but I did start thinking about how I could break down my preferences in an easy-to-digest format.

This won’t be about steampunk or dystopias or paranormal romance. All I know for certain is that I consider myself a fantasy writer: it’s the broadest category that’s always made me happiest. My caveat is that I’m not generally invested in Tolkienesque sword-and-sorcery: my definitive introductory fantasy text wasn’t Lord of the Rings, but Redwall, which took me in some different directions. (As a sidebar, I’m the heretic who adores Peter Jackson’s movies but is bored by the books, save for The Silmarillion, which many people find impenetrable.) I tend to think there’s an internal logic to my genres. Here are my top five.

1. Epics. Blame this on Homer. The bigger and meatier the story, the more I can get lost in the world, the more I love it. The experience of immersing myself in something else entirely is one of the reasons I read and write. Quest stories in particular are really delightful to me, and given that I wrote reams of Redwall and Odyssey spinoffs as a kid, it’s no surprise to me that I have a hard time assembling novels in which the protagonists stay put.

2. Myth, folk tales and fairy tales. There’s something so fascinating to me about authorless stories that everyone within a culture knows. I love how potently these stories become connective tissue within a society, and I’m always impressed by how the telling of these stories is such an important part of the story itself. These are narratives as an act of power, and they change so much in relation to who tells them. That dynamism never stops moving me; I always want to engage.

3. Magical realism. I loved this genre for a long time before I knew the term for it. I’ve always been attracted to the tone and atmosphere of a story where everything seems normal except for one particular thing, or where something becomes literalized — cities are people, books are alive, God is dead and needs to be towed out to sea. The scale of magical realist stories is something I also find inviting: it can be as far-reaching or as personal as you wish.

4. Literary derivations. Two of my ongoing projects are radical reinterpretations of Shakespeare plays — not just retellings from another perspective, but taking those characters and their lives and putting them somewhere entirely new. I’m also working on a version of the Odyssey actually set in space, with all the considerations for psychology and culture that a modern audience demands. I honestly think the value of reinterpreting texts and engaging with them through storytelling cannot be overstated, no matter what the text.

5. Pastiche. I recently finished a story told in the style and conventions of a Jane Austen novel, and it was the most fun I’ve had writing in a long, long time. In the same sense that poetry with strict stylistic requirements gives poets a framework to break and play with, so too does taking on a voice decidedly not your own. The writing can just flow once you’ve figured out the style. It’s a neat way of combining elements of improv and collage, in that you’re operating within a character more than dictating it, and that you’re playing with juxtaposition and combination.

As I look these over, the pattern I notice is how much I’m into reframing and world-building. Perhaps these aren’t as immediately marketable as “werewolf novel” or “deconstructing superheroes” (both of which I love dearly, don’t get me wrong!), but I find I’m not really nervous about that. Like Elphine, I know what I like, and when the time comes, if I can spoil the ending of Cold Comfort Farm a little, I’m confident I can land a guy — or an agent, knock on wood! — who gets that.

This item will give you talent!

One day, all this could be yours.

Most of the tabs I have open right now are for drafting tables. I am not allowed to have one, but I can’t stop myself. Looking at drafting tables gives me wild, extravagant dreams of using drafting tables, and these days I have one ambition above all: I want to draw comics.

Not just any comic. I want the comic that is the movie I will never get to make. I want the comic about Telemachos, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, who I feel has always gotten short shrift from others who love the Odyssey. I can see it all now: it’ll be so good! Gunnerkrigg Court good! Dare I say it? Sandman good! I have devoted years of my life to this story already, and maybe, just maybe, having all the stuff one uses to make a comic will enable me to churn it out myself.

There’s a snag, of course. I have no experience either writing or drawing comics, and supplies do not an artist make. Not all is lost, though. I do have one thing on my side: I love this story more than I can possibly say, and I think loving the story will compel me to learn how to tell it in a new medium.

When I think about it, this has already been the case in my life. I was introduced to the Odyssey when I was 7 years old. We were on a family car trip, and my mom got the audiobook from the library. I was enthralled from the get-go. The Odyssey is an oral poem, meant to be heard more than read, and I was introduced in the best possible way. When we got to the end of the tapes, I promptly asked to hear the first cassette again. I wound up renewing the audiobook so much that the Athens Public Library banned me from borrowing it, and my parents had to buy it for me.

Some fruits of a lifelong habit

Two things happened. I began seeking out other books related to Homeric epics and Greek myth, and I began writing my own related stories. Hardly a day passed when I didn’t have my nose in D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths or Black Ships Before Troy or The Firebrand, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s feminist take on the Iliad. This last I must have read two or three times a year from the time I was 8 until I was a teen. Meanwhile, I was working on my first chapter book. I had been writing little stories since I could type, and making them up since I was much younger. Theatride’s Odyssey was my own sequel, in which the goddess Athena gives a long-lost daughter of Odysseus a magic ring. The ring enables Theatride to turn into any animal she wants, and will aid her in her quest to defeat a far-off tyrant.

I was devoted to that story. I kept a notebook where I jotted out plot ideas and scenes and characters. I wrote it out longhand and then typed it on a typewriter, to make it more official. I even provided a few illustrations. The whole thing lived in a crisp new folder specifically for the story. It wasn’t short, either — by the time I finished it, I think I had twenty-five double-sided sheets. I’ve been writing epics ever since. (Somewhere on an old Macintosh Performa may also be my attempt at epic poetry, a Redwall-style story called Lilywood. The prose stuck more than the poetry, but it was also a direct attempt to mimic Homeric texts.)

The Odyssey was also my gateway into academia. It’s the reason I got into my major at school (we called them concentrations), and I wrote my junior paper, the equivalent of a senior thesis, on Telemachos and why he is both a worthy successor to Odysseus and his own person within the poem. My junior paper remains the hardest I’ve ever worked on a piece of nonfiction. I had never bothered as much as I should have with things like revisions and multiple drafts, so on a technical level, my advisor demanded much more than me just coasting by. Trying to please her made my writing much better, but it was in conversation with her that I truly learned how to analyze and argue. I remain incredibly proud of my junior paper. As I reread it recently, I found myself missing that kind of rigorous engagement. If Homer becomes the reason I go to graduate school, I will laugh.

Telemachos gets me where I live. His story has always been the one that’s moved me most. Odysseus and Penelope may speak to me more when I’m older, but Telemachos is the child of two famous parents who has yet to define himself. He must take control of his actions and his place in society, and he must leave home to do it. Over the course of the poem, we watch him grow up tremendously, and when the poem ends, he is faced with enormous ethical and political questions, not to mention adjusting to a life with his absent father at home. There is nothing dull about him to me, and I am champing at the bit to share that with other people.

Two weeks ago, I wasn’t nearly this passionate. But, as the Homeric poet might say, the god intervened. As I was walking up Broadway with a friend, I spotted the spine of a familiar book on a sidewalk sale cart. It was The Firebrand, which I hadn’t read since I was 12 or 13. I had exact cash in my wallet. I was doomed from the start.

Communing with my childhood

Rereading The Firebrand has been an experience, and a story for another time. I still see why I loved it, and I also catch things that went over my head as a kid. This was the first time I’d encountered a transformative account of the Trojan War, one that didn’t take all the heroics and myth at face value. Achilles is a petulant, amoral brat; Odysseus is a low-class pirate; centaurs are just wild men on horses, and women rule their city-states as Queens with upstart consorts. Our narrator is Kassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, whose prophesies of disaster always come true and are never heeded.

At one point, Odysseus relates how he was conscripted into war against Troy. Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae himself, came to Ithaka to fetch him. Rather than leave his wife and young son for a war he wanted no part of, Odysseus feigned madness. He dressed in rags, harnessed an ox and began plowing a field in crooked, erratic lines. Agamemnon was brought to see proof of Odysseus’s unfitness for himself. But he was no fool either: he scooped up toddler Telemachos and set him in the path of his father’s ox. Odysseus had no choice but to swerve, proving him sound of mind. He left for Troy that very day.

Wow, I thought as I read this, what an opening shot. It was totally involuntary. That was the moment it seized me, this need to make this story into a comic, which wouldn’t require all that a filmed version would. The next weekend I found myself in a Border’s liquidation sale, shelling out for huge sketchbooks and a truly lucky find, Drawing Words and Writing Pictures, a fabulous textbook for a comics-making course. It’s reading through this that’s made me want a drafting table. I’m dreaming now of t-squares and Ames Lettering Guides. But I’m holding myself back, and not just because I need that money to eat and do laundry.

There’s no sense in buying all the supplies before I know I’m going to use them. I hope this isn’t just a flash in the pan, but I have to earn these things with a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes before I invest in them. Even the storytelling, something I have a lot of practice doing, will need some adjusting as I figure out this new form. If I can make drawing and lettering and panels and ink a regular part of my life, if it becomes something I will do consistently, then maybe we can talk materials. First step: closing these tabs and breaking out some pencils.

I’ve got this, though, cheesy as it might sound. I love this story. Hopefully, when I’m finished, so might you.


cover, MattimeoLet me tell you about how a book changed my life.

In third grade, I thought I was a pretty great reader. I was totally into chapter books, and read virtually anything I could get my hands on, with many thanks to our library and the Scholastic Book Club catalogs. I also loved animals: the year before, we’d finally gotten a dog, and I had spent a good deal of time utterly obsessed with Jack London books and The Rats of NIMH.

My friend Tristan had this new hardback. I’d seen him carrying it around, but hadn’t investigated. It was more than an inch thick, and the clothbound cover – I seem to remember it was maroon – had only a single, shiny title on it. When I asked him about it, he told me it was a chapter book with only tiny pictures at the start of each chapter. And that good guys sometimes die. I was rocked by this. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that that could happen, and the fact that someone my age was reading this book meant that I could too, and should.

The book was Mattimeo. The rest is history.

I devoured the Redwall books from the age of 8 until I was nearly out of college. I loved the epic quests, the unlikely friendships, the different clans of animals, the loyalty, the scoundrels, the betrayals, the adventure, the strangeness, the feasts. I truly think I read some of those books more than a hundred times each. Mattimeo, The Bellmaker, Salamandastron, Mossflower – these are formative texts for me. Because of Redwall, I went to the library and asked for similar books or bigger books. The librarian gave me The Cold Moons by Aeron Clement, my first adult fiction book, and of course, the great Watership Down. Once I had a taste of the Adult Fiction section, and wasn’t so scared of it, the whole library was open to me, and I read everywhere.

Being dissatisfied that there were no wolves in the series, I began writing my own stories, which rapidly became a sprawling series of my own, which I illustrated and read aloud to my mother on car trips. (They’re fantastic stories, by the way, combining all the best features of the mid- to late-90s alternative pop music scene with The Lion King and dashes of unintentionally postmodern humor. I’m not actually being snide: I have a tremendous soft spot for that period of work.) Writing those stories made me push myself as a storyteller, and it also made me someone who writes, regularly and constantly, for fun. I am not a writer or a reader because of Brian Jacques, but he had an outsized hand in it.

Usually I skipped the long lists of dishes, and, unless it was plot-related, the poetry, but the world of Mossflower, oh, I wanted it dearly. How I wanted to be an otter or a hare, and to terrorize the kitchen and go on quests and have friends who would die for me or the other way around. How I saw Mossflower in Appalachia growing up, the lush forests and rivers and mountains. How I wanted to see the ocean the way Jacques did. And yes, there did come a time when I realized that each book was the same book as the last one, but it was the same wonderful story, and it never stopped me from loving it.

Brian Jacques passed away suddenly this weekend, on Saturday, February 5th. I have lost my chance to thank him directly for all that he has given me, and that does grieve me: I truly thought he would be around forever, and that Mossflower would soldier on and on and on. Still, just because a person is gone does not mean they are lost: his books taught me that too, over and over again.

So, thank you, sir. Thank you for Gonff and Columbine. Thank you for Mariel and Dandin. Thank you for Tsarmina and Slagar the Cruel and Ferahgo the Assassin and General Ironbeak. Thank you for the Foremole and Log-a-Log and the Skipper of Otters. Thank you for Dibbuns and St. Ninians and the Long Patrol and the River Moss and the tapestry. Thank you for meadowcream and hotroot and October ale and deeper’n’ever pie. Thank you for Badger Lords and Badgermums and countless abbots and abbesses, for friars and recorders and cellarkeepers and novices. Thank you for maps and riddles and ships and dreams. Thank you for swans and pikes and snakes and bats and wolverines. Thank you for the dialects. Thank you for Basil Stag Hare and Queen Warbeak and Finbarr Galedeep. Thank you for the Bloodwrath and the Gullwhacker, the Mace, the Axe, and of course, the Sword. Thank you for showing that the world is complicated, and that the good guys can and will die.

Thank you for all those hours when I could have been doing something else. Instead, you took me somewhere, and I began to wander.

Sleep well, Mr. Jacques. Endlessly, thank you.