Recommended Reading: A Head Full of Ghosts

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Finally, I have a new book to recommend, and it’s a really good one: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. When she was eight years old, Merry’s big sister Marjorie developed severe schizophrenia–or perhaps, as their dad came to believe, she was possessed by a demon. Desperate for both money and a cure, Marjorie’s parents agreed to let a reality TV show film her exorcism, with disastrous results. If you love anything to do with horror, you will love this book.

My North Carolina State of Mind – The New York Times

Here is a beautiful eulogy by author Allan Gurganis memorializing Nancy Olson, the owner of local independent bookstore Quail Ridge Books, and reflecting on the recently passed controversial law that, among other things, eliminates protection from discrimination for members of the LGBT community state-wide. This moving piece reminds me why I keep loving my home state and why it’s a great place to live despite the way our elected legislators seem determined to drag us down.

I moved back home in 1993 to fight bigotry. We are both still here.

Read: My North Carolina State of Mind – The New York Times

Reading Journal: Beginning of April

It’s been over a month since I’ve posted a reading journal update. Most of my reading has lately not-so-inspiring–although I did enjoy reading Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor so much that I wrote a rather long response to it.

far_north_therouxAnother post-apocalyptic book I enjoyed was Far North by Marcel Theroux. It is set in post-climate change Siberia and is also about a woman’s journey. Also recommended is John Scalzi’s Lock Inwhich is a near future thriller with a lot of intriguing ideas.

Newer fiction was a bit of a letdown. The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins is buzz-worthy dark fantasy, and the style reminds me quite a lot of Neil Gaiman, but it seemed too heavy on the horror with not enough emotional connectivity to fully engage me. Ditto for the post-apocalyptic novel The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy–strong shades of The Stand and Swan Song, but not nearly the emotional punch of those classics.

Some horror by women: A romance-heavy ghost story by Alexandra Sokoloff, The Unseen (which is set very near where I lived in Durham, NC), came across as muddled. The Cipher by Kathe Koja is much better written horror, but somewhat overlong for the premise. It’s about a hole (a “Funhole”) that’s a portal of sorts, and it changes things … and people. This is a concept that’s hard to summarize. However, I did think it should have been closer to novella length.

26883558Victor LaValle’s new novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, is very well written, and interesting in that it is both an homage to H.P. Lovecraft and a refutation of his racism. It is a retelling of one of Lovecraft’s most notoriously xenophobic stories, “The Horror at Red Hook” (amusing summary here). LaValle very cleverly turns Lovecraft in on itself to offer a different version of events, one that underscores the racism of the time as it really existed and in the writing and reading of Lovecraft and others. However, it is still Lovecraftian, and I have never been a fan of anything Lovecraft. If you are, it is worth a read.

Both The Cipher and The Ballad of Black Tom have a cipher; a portal into nothingness; a figure inside that you do not want to see. It was interesting reading them back-to-back.

An homage of a different sort is James Maxey’s Bad Wizarda return to Oz. This self-published book is a lightweight adventure that takes place after Dorothy is all grown up. Like the LaValle, it’s a cheap buy for Kindle.

Currently, I’m back to horror, reading the enthralling A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. I hope to be reading more new fiction over the next few months and posting reviews more regularly. I hope you find something in this roundup that catches your fancy!

Literary elephantiasis…

Recently, I attended a panel discussion of local writers on something entirely unrelated when one of them said something that confirmed a suspicion I already had. He said that an editor had actually asked him to shove 10,000 more words into his manuscript. Apparently, long books look more substantial on bookstore shelves, so I guess it feels like you’re getting more bang for your buck or something. I had already suspected this a while ago after reading The Goldfinch, which I thought was several thousand words too long. It used to be that editors edited. Now, apparently they bloat. That only adds to my stubborn determination to avoid books over 500 pages unless I have a damn good reason to read them. This piece in The Guardian only  reinforces my view, and it includes a nice list of short books if you’re tired of “literary elephantiasis.” Do you think novels are too long these days?

By the way, here’s my previous rant on long books. Since I wrote that, here are a few popular novels I’ve passed up reading because they’re too damned long: A Little Life; The Luminaries; Wolf Hall; The Paying Guests; Seveneves; and I could go on (and on and on).

Six identities, six stories

As I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead,  it hit me that the six identities of the writer she explores can also be interpreted as six story archetypes. Almost every story I could think of fit at least one of the archetypes, and many took elements from several of them.Clearly, these are stories that resonate deeply with us.

It’s no accident that Atwood gives many examples from horror fiction to support the archetypes she identifies in her book. Horror, which confronts both our fear of and fascination with death, is the most primal of literary genres. It is also most closely tied to our oldest kinds of stories: myths, legends, and fairy tales. Following Atwood’s lead, I have chosen horror novels to illustrate each of the six archetypes. I have found at least one famous classic work of horror literature that perfectly exemplifies each category.

Categorizing is fun, as well as a human compulsion. These archetypes provide an interesting and, I think, useful way of thinking about stories. (But of course, it is not the only way.)

(1) Realization story: The protagonist realizes something critical about his/her own nature and undergoes fundamental change. Best known as the coming-of-age story.

Example: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is a perfect example of a coming-of-age and self-realization story.

(2) Duplicity story: Dual natures, whether internal or external, are placed in opposition to one another. Includes stories of good versus evil, rivalry, tricksters, doppelgangers, and shapeshifters.

Example: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is the prototypical split personality story, exploring the warring dark and light sides of human nature.

(3) Devotion story: The protagonist is dedicated to something higher than him/herself and pursues it, no matter what the human cost. Includes stories of playing God, pursuing art for art’s sake, giving oneself over to the gods or the muse, and self-sacrifice.

Examples: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is the story of a scientist who pursues his quest to create life and winds up creating a monster with horrific consequences for him and everyone he loves.

(4) Temptation story: The protagonist is tempted to violate what is ethical or right in exchange for personal gain. Includes stories of deals with the devil, falls from grace, black magic, and forbidden love.

Examples: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is about a man who gives into a life of hedonism and eternal youth, the effects of which show only on his portrait, but ends up losing his soul in the process (also Doctor Faustus and all its variants).

(5) Outsider story: The storyteller is a stranger or stands apart from the world in some way and reports what s/he witnesses or discovers something that must be told. Dystopias often fall into this category.

Examples: The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells is about a scientist who makes himself invisible and becomes a hated and feared exile from society as a result.

(6) Descent story: The protagonist journeys to a strange land outside of normal human experience or encounters the supernatural on a quest to bring back something of value or to save or avenge someone. Includes stories of the hero’s journey, overcoming the monster, and many ghost stories.

Examples: Dracula by Bram Stoker begins with a journey to a foreign land, where Jonathan Harker encounters the supernatural vampire, and ends with a quest by a band of heroes to destroy Dracula and save Mina Harker (also The Odyssey  and Beowulf).

 

Negotiating with the dead: Margaret Atwood on what it means to be a writer

The short book, Negotiating with the Dead, is a collection of six lectures Margaret Atwood gave on writing. This is not a typical writing handbook, dispensing now-cliched advice like “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell.” Rather, Atwood tackles the question of what does it mean to “be a writer?” What is the writer, anyway, and why are writers compelled to write? She ends up posing more questions than she answers.

The six lectures each address a different aspect of the Writer. Using examples from literature, poetry, and mythology, Atwood positions the writer as six archetypes. Indeed, each of her lectures could describe types of story as well as facets of the storyteller (more on that in a later post). Atwood’s insights are unusual but will ring true to anyone who has felt the urge to write, or indeed, to any creator, I suspect.

The following are my notes on each lecture. However, to gain full understanding of Atwood’s insights, you should read the book; it won’t take you long, and if you are interested in writing or literature, it is worth it.

(1) Orientation: Who do you think you are? What is “a writer,” and how did I become one?

“Who do you think you are?” is the question every writer gets asked, and every writer asks him/herself. Is the writer special? Society seems to accord the writer a certain respect. The writer cannot distinguish between the real and imagined: “Every life lived is also an inner life, a life created.”

(2) Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double. Why there are always two.

Every writer is a double: one-half does the living, one-half does the writing. “The writer is obscured by the image he himself has created.” The author is “the name without any body except a body of work.”

The printed text is like a musical score. New readers make the text new by finding fresh meaning in it. The “act of reading is like playing music and listening to it at the same time and the reader becomes his own interpreter.”

(3) Dedication: The great god pen. Apollo vs. Mammon: at whose altar should the writer worship?

The writer as priest/ess, serving “the potentially destructive cult of art for art’s sake.” The writer sacrifices him/herself for art and forfeits the “human ability to feel.”

In the question of money versus art, Atwood reaches no real conclusion except that women have it harder (always).

(4) Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co. Who waves the wand, pulls the strings, or signs the Devil’s book?

Writers are haunted by their own inconsequence. “Nobody hates writers more than writers do. Nobody loves them more either.”

When money and power intersect art, they control what the writer may produce. This is the outside world’s influence. In other words, how much for your soul?

Where the writer influences the outside world, this is the writer’s social responsibility. What is the writer’s duty?

“The suffering will occur whether you like it or not.” Suffering is a result of writing, rather than a cause. Publishing is like being put on trial.

Trying for power is unethical, but not engaging with the world risks irrelevance. Is there a self-identity for the writer that combines responsibility with artistic integrity? Possibly the witness.

Can anything and everything be viewed as material? Not only does the writer lose the soul, but also the heart. The cold-eyed artist observes and records.

It isn’t the writer who decides whether his/her work is relevant–it’s the reader.

(5) Communion: Nobody to Nobody. The eternal triangle: the writer, the reader, and the book as go-between.

The common writerly dilemma is the question: Who is going to read this?

For whom does the writer write? Where is the writer when the reader is reading? (Not in the same room). The writer is the invisible man–not there but also solidly there at the same time.

The reader is a spy who overhears or trespasses. The reader is “nobody” (you, dear reader, constant reader). But the reader is also the reading public (the “admiring Bog”).

Books must travel from reader to reader to stay alive.

(6) Descent: Negotiating with the dead. Who makes the trip to the Underworld, and why? (This is the key chapter.)

All writing is motivated by a fear of and fascination with mortality. Writing is linked closely to anxiety about one’s own personal extinction. It is desire for (grasping at) immortality. Writing has apparent permanence; it survives its own performance.

Storytelling is the relation of events unfolding through time, and time runs out for everyone. The dead are situated outside of time but persist in the minds of the living. They know the past and the future. We can gain knowledge (stories) from them.

The dead can talk if you know how to listen, and they want to talk. Give the dead what they want to get what we want (knowledge, luck, protection, riches, glory, lost love). They want blood (life, sacrifice, revenge, food). However, they will retaliate if the deal is broken.

All writers learn from the dead. The dead control the past, so they also control the stories, and the truth. The writer makes the journey from “now” to “once upon a time.”

The writer goes to the Underworld (any “other world” outside of time) and brings back stories. The story is in the dark. The writer is of both worlds (double-natured).

It’s easy to go there but hard to come back. Then you must write it all down. Then the right reader must come along so it can speak.

A book is another country. You enter it, but then you must leave. You can’t live there. Even if someone is briefly brought to life in the writing, they are always lost again.

“By my voice I shall be known.”

 

 

The feminist dystopia…

I have posted a survey of feminist dystopian visions. I hope you enjoy.

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