Steering the Craft

Steering the Craft came recommended to me by a member of my writing groups. Or not recommended to me specifically, but recommended as a purchase with the group’s money. I borrowed it last week to see what Ursula K. LeGuin had to say about writing.

Cover of the 2015 edition of Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin
Image courtesy Mariner Books

Author: Ursula K. LeGuin

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.15 stars

Language scaling: B2+ (though some of the books she quotes are older or use some form of regional dialect and more like C2)

Summary: LeGuin provides thoughts on different technical aspects of writing narrative, along with examples to consider and writing exercises to try yourself.

Recommended audience: Anyone interested in narrative writing (fiction, memoirs, etc.)

In-depth thoughts: People often recommend Stephen King’s On Writing as a guidebook for writers. I did too, once upon a time, and I still would. I would just pair it with Steering the Craft. I think King still has fantastic insights on the process of writing, but LeGuin has the better grasp of what makes for good style. Not surprising, since I find King’s writing fairly pedestrian whereas LeGuin’s prose is actually good. To that end, I think Steering the Craft is a good book for editors, while they can give On Writing a pass (unless they’re also writers, of course!).

LeGuin doesn’t give any hard and fast rules about anything; she merely points out what most people do these days and what most people used to do in previous eras, recognizing that there is a time and a place for following guidelines and for departing from them. She also provides a good 101 level introduction to the technical terms of English grammar, rightly pointing out that a writer should be able to name their tools specifically rather than just having a vague idea about things.

Some of the literary extracts, being over a hundred years old or using a particular regional dialect (or both!), might be hard for non-native speakers to process, but the instructional aspects of the book, including her exercises, are crystal clear. The exercises are originally intended for a workshop or feedback group, but would work just as well in a traditional classroom setting. Editors would probably want to keep a copy of this on hand, or at least browse through it once or twice, so as to be able to better diagnose or name what would otherwise be a vague “I don’t know what it is” problem in a manuscript.

Spring Thaw

Saturday was my first run of the year. Since I started 5K training in 2016, I’ve become so used to running outside that I don’t think I can ever go back to treadmills. During the winter I just don’t run at all, and yet the break doesn’t seem to take much of a toll on anything. My pace is always within just a couple minutes of what my average for the previous season was; my muscles aren’t any more sore afterwards. Still, this year I had big plans about intense yoga at home three days a week until the ice melted; instead I just slept in.

A strand of birch and fir trees in thawing, melting snow.

This is a miserable time of year for me. It’s nice that the sun’s back, of course, but now with the melting ice and snow means gray, sad trees and (in Stockholm) giant mountains of gravel and snow. Mostly gravel. Spring is lauded as a time of warmth and flowers, but in my experience it’s mostly just muddy and unpleasant. There’s two weeks of spring, maybe, that’s nice, and by then it’s practically summer.

Bushes in thawing, melting snow.

Still, once you get out in nature, the thaw becomes a lot more attractive. And that’s exactly why I’ve been put off the treadmill forever.

Friday 5: Mischief Managed

This week’s Friday 5 has a Harry Potter theme and it’s killing me because I think the Harry Potter books are the trashy TV of the book world and are some of the most overrated books I’ve encountered. Also, Rowling keeps liking vaguely and not-so-vaguely transphobic posts on Twitter and it’s really off-brand.

selective focus photography of grumpy face toddler sitting on plaid pad taken during daytime
My “mediocre book” face. // Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

At least the questions are interesting?

The Mirror of Erised doesn’t show a reflection of you at the moment, but of you and what your heart most desires. If you gazed into it today, what image would you see?

I would see SO MANY finished manuscripts. And I don’t know how you could visually convey linguistic fluency: I guess a library full of books in Swedish, Korean, French, Farsi, Russian, German…

Who’s really pissed at you right now?

There’s a couple people in Stockholm I definitely haven’t endeared myself to (and sometimes it feels like such a small city that I genuinely worry about running into them on the street or at an event), but I don’t know if they’re actually angry at me. Nor do I want to know!

What model vehicle would be great to turn into a flying car?

Obviously a Chitty!

What item in your house could use a dose of magic, and what would extraordinary quality would you like to imbue it with?

Hell yeah I want my oven to just materialize food out of nowhere. It’s not that I mind that my dietary intake for the past few weeks has been peanut butter sandwiches, instant noodles, and pizza—I just know that I need a little more variety than that.

Among people you know, who is most likely and secretly born with magical ability?

If it could be anyone it might as well be me, right? I want it to be me.

Burnt Shadows

One of my ongoing goals is to clear out my backlog of unread books. Burnt Shadows has been in my library since 2009 and might win the award for “gone longest without reading,” at least among the books I have left after numerous purges. The Wrath of Kon Mari.

Cover of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Image courtesy Bond Street Books

Author: Kamila Shamsie

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.9 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: The atom bomb brings together disparate families from Japan, India, England and Germany, leading to tragedy and betrayal in post-9/11 America.

Recommended audience: History buffs and international policy nerds who might want a narrative, fictional take on what they already know

In-depth thoughts: Is it bad manners to pan a book from your college writing workshop professor? I guess, but I’ll go ahead and bite the hand that fed me.

The current political atmosphere in the US, when the national paranoia stoked in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 is once again on the rise, may have affected how I felt about everything. Maybe my own impatience with reading and wanting to get back on track with my book goals might have also forced me to rush and engage with Burnt Shadows differently than if I were just leisurely reading.

The story itself, about the thin threads of happenstance that connect people half a world apart, is intricate and fascinating and the multigenerational aspect of the story  is handled really well, in that all of the parts that Shamsie includes in the story feel absolutely essential.

The sticking point for me was the characters. There are a lot, but it’s not their plenitude that I had an issue with. Actually, on a technical level, the multiple perspectives are handled masterfully. Usually switching perspectives within a scene is confusing and unnecessary, but in this case it works for Shamsie and brings essential information and development to the table.

But the reason that these perspective shifts work on a micro level might be why I was lukewarm about the book on a macro level. Maybe it’s easier to smooth the transition between “head hops” when all of the characters have the same inner narrative style: vaguely lyrical, poetic, refined. It’s not up there with the dialogue in John Green’s Kids With Cancer Falling in Love Makes For Rave Reviews Because Who Would Shit on a Story About Kids With Cancer*—each character’s language and thought process, in isolation, is completely believable; there’s nothing bombastic or ridiculous about any of it—but it does strain credulity a bit that everyone in Burnt Shadows looks at the world through similar metaphors and has essentially the same inner narrative voice. I was reminded a lot of  A Death in the Family and why I rage quit that one years ago: characters were only surface-level different; they still all thought with the same voice and noticed and commented on the same sorts of things. That one was an atheist and another was religious had no real bearing on anything. They were all interchangeable.

There is also an element of melodrama in the writing that feels out of place for me. This is a story about really terrible things, like the atom bomb and Guantanamo Bay and Islamophobia and kids in military training camps—the extra layer of interpersonal melodrama feels unnecessary, and undercuts the gravity of the story.

 

*I mean, I would. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Tiny Moments of Joy: Shoplifters

I do things on the weekend now, I guess, instead of working. This weekend it was another movie: Shoplifters.

Poster for the Japanese movie Shoplifters

It’s a really good movie, but you don’t need me to tell you that; it’s already won a bunch of awards. More interesting for me is that the last time I tried to watch a foreign movie with Swedish subtitles—I don’t know how many years ago anymore, but several—I gave up about ten minutes into the movie and switched the subtitles to English. It was just too much to process at once. This time it was fine. Progress!

Friday 5: QotD

Liquor being poured over ice in a shot glass.
Image courtesy Adam Jaime on Unsplash.

What kind of drunk are you?

Oh, so many different kinds! Chatty, aggressive, melodramatic. It tends to be, I think, whatever aspect of myself hasn’t gotten a lot of air time recently. In vino (momentary) veritas.

 

What’s one of your language-related pet peeves?

This came up a while back, and I’ll just say what I said then:

Editors are supposed to have an endless list of these, right? So the stereotype goes. We are the gatekeepers of language and so on and so forth. And I guess we all do, probably. But if you look at the layperson’s language pet peeves (“they’re/there/their”! “your/you’re”!) and the editor’s pet peeves, the overlap would probably be quite small.

My personal ones these days are The New Yorker’s bizarre house style guide (coöperation? no thanks) and The New York Times’ practice of referring to heads of state with honorific titles instead of, simply, their names.

 

What would be a good question to ask people you’ve just met, if what you really want to know is what they’re passionate about? You know, an alternative to “What do you do?” or “How do you know so-and-so?”

I like to ask people to name a movie they think is overrated and a movie they think is underrated. The reasoning in their answers is often revealing, and sometimes you get a good recommendation out of the question to boot!

When you get home super tired and super hungry, do you usually eat first or sleep first?

Food always comes first. Food above all else. All hail food.

You’re taking an exam. You aren’t sure about the answer to question 5, but you know it’s either “lions” or “tigers.” You get to question 11 and realize whatever the answer to 5 is, 11 is the other answer. Do you write “lions” as your answer to 5 and 11, thereby ensuring you’ll get one of them right? Or do you write “lions” for 5 and “tigers” for 11, risking two wrong answers but giving you a chance at two right ones?

Oh, this game theory realness! Before I did anything else I would reflect on the question, maybe work on other parts of the exam for a little bit, take a moment to let my wander off the topic entirely. But if I did all of that and I still didn’t know, and didn’t have even an inclination either way, I think I’d go for “lions” for both.

Tiny Moments of Joy: Aniara at Bio Rio

One of the books I read in my Modernist Swedish Literature course a million years ago was Aniara. Since we were still babies in the Swedish language, everything we read was an English translation. To this day I don’t know how The Swedish Program at Stockholm University managed to find enough copies—actual proper hardback copies, not dodgy spiral-bound printouts—of the English translation for all of us. These days the only English version available anywhere seems to be an ugly paperback edition that fetches a whopping $225 on Amazon.

Screenshot of the only English copy of Aniara available on Amazon. Priced at $225!
I wish this would go back into print so my anglophone sci-fi fan friends could afford to read it.

I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t quite appreciate reading Aniara at the time. I love sci fi but I’m extremely unconvinced by poetry, so the whole thing left me tepid. Now that I’m older, I appreciate not only the weirdness of the project (an epic poem about a pioneer ship lost in space!) but the metaphorical aspect of the whole piece in the face of the threat of nuclear winter and environmental annihilation.

I only learned that there was an Aniara movie after I saw a poster for it at ABF after my writing Meetup. My timing was excellent: Bio Rio only has two showings and both of them are in February. There’s one more screening on 15 February, for those of you in Stockholm who are free at 3 in the afternoon on a weekday. I’m not, so I had to grab last-minute tickets to the evening showing this past Saturday. I also, at the very last minute, tracked down a copy of the Swedish original from the library so I could go into the movie with a refreshed memory.

Aniara the movie is a graceful companion to Aniara the epic poem, if not least to provide visuals that help anchor the story (as much as there is one). Specifically, the movie illustrates the sheer vastness of everything far better than words maybe ever could. Martinson gives some details—a ship with 8,000 people on board, 15,580 feet long and 2,923 feet wide—but it’s hard to really appreciate, on the emotional and intuitive level, what those numbers really mean. The establishing shots of huge milling crowds in a huge, outsized version of a Viking Line cruise ship, however, suddenly makes it crystal clear.  The poem also does very little to specify the actual specifics of the ship, aside from the fact that it has crystal-clear windows and walls over must of it. Thanks to a steady childhood diet of mid-century science fiction movies, I always imagined the interior of Aniara as a very minimalist, brushed chrome sort of space ship; the option to represent the ship as an opulent, futuristic echo of today’s booze cruises was an inspired one and provided a nice visual irony in the later years of the ship’s voyage.

References and quotations from the poem fit into the movie quite elegantly, whether in events and plot points or pieces of dialogue. The screenwriters opted to ground things in the particular story arc of the Mimarob—the employee who operates the Mima, which in the movie is the equivalent of the holodeck from Star Trek but in the poem is more like a fancy movie theater. The change works well; the vague nameless “we” in many of the poems is enough to track when you read, but in a movie it helps to have at least one central character we can follow throughout. The choice of the Mimarob for such a protagonist also makes sense; on the rare occasion a singular “I” turns up in the poem, it’s usually the Mimarob.

I didn’t finish re-reading Aniara entirely beforehand, so I can’t say whether some of the grimmer plot points were also alluded to in the poem or if they were added for dramatic purposes. But it doesn’t seem worth harping on grimness when we’re talking about an adaption of an epic poem where everyone ends up lost in space forever.

Like 2001 and Arrival, the film version of Aniara succeeds in complementing the original text it’s based on, so that instead of competing to tell the singular best version of an idea, both versions become one cohesive whole. Watch the movie and, if you can, read the book.

Friday 5: Salt Fat Acid Heat

A black bowl of Shin Ramyun with beef and vegetables.
Image courtesy Beboldtlsfkaus

What are some very salty foods you enjoy?

Oh man, I try not to think about how much salt is in my favorite Korean ramen because it’s…probably not great. But I get points for getting two or three meals out of the broth instead of just one, right?

What areas of your life could stand a little fat-trimming?

It’s that time of the year again! Right around the new year, I go through the people I follow on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, and decide who’s not working out for me.

How acid-tongued are you?

When I interact with people? Not at all. When you get me drunk and talking about Jane Austen or Harry Potter? Whew boy.

What’s an interesting way you’ve burned yourself?

If I’ve ever burned myself, it’s been in the usual, pedestrian ways.

What are your favorite everyday cooking implements?

My kettle is absolutely essential! (See above, re: ramen.) The microwave is also very, very important. When someone in this apartment actually cooks, the mandoline slicer and the garlic press get a lot of use.

The Boggart

I originally read The Boggart in elementary school, and then re-read it back in December, so no matter how you slice it I’m cheating a bit (or have fallen quite far behind) to bring it up for a book post in February. To which I say: come at me, bro.

Scholastic Books edition of The Boggart by Susan Cooper
Image courtesy Scholastic

Author: Susan Cooper

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.75 stars

Language scaling: B1+

Summary: The Vonik family inherits a castle in Scotland and brings a boggart with them back to Canada

Recommended audience: Fantasy fans; people who enjoyed Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series; Scottish mythology fans

In-depth thoughts: My occasion for re-reading this one was actually for work. One of my younger (former) students is very much into ghost stories and the like, and while I was trying to figure out the next thing I wanted to read, my eyes lighted on my battered Scholastic book fair edition of The Boggart. Mischievous ghosts and drafty Scottish castles? On brand!

I was right — it was a bigger hit than the other books I’d brought in — but my point here isn’t how I’m awesome at picking out books for students but about how much I haven’t grown out of this book.

I didn’t remember that much about it, except that it had a ghost and that ten-year-old me loved it. (How else would it survive countless book purges and a trip across the ocean?) The perfect time to re-read a book!

The first or second lesson I read along with my student, we got to a section about the titular boggart mourning the death of their very first human friend, and it choked me up. If your middle grade fantasy novel brings grown-ups to tears, then you’re a competent and accomplished writer. Also, points for using semicolons (happy semikolonets dag!) and having the characters’ mother apologize to another adult for being “bitchy.” We don’t have to banish semantic complexity or linguistic realism from children’s literature!

While charming, The Boggart still isn’t as effortless as The Dark is Rising; Cooper has to do a lot of heavy lifting to get her modern Canadian family to clue in to the ancient Scottish spirit turning their lives upside down, and it gets clumsy in places. A couple of moments are clearly meant to be whimsical or wonderful but feel a bit much, and a third act bad guy appears out of nowhere, to no end except to be a vague menace. What is considered the latest technology is also a key plot point, but this was the latest technology back in 1993, so there are also portions that are incredibly dated when you’re reading in 2019.