Thursday, December 27, 2012

Beyond the Barricade: Les Miserables (2012)

I'm a massive theatre geek. I even flirted with the idea of making my living in the performing arts at one time (instead I've decided to go the much safer route of writing... ha). Les Mis was one of my favorite musical scores growing up and I was excited to see how it would be brought to the main screen.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it's based off Victor Hugo's novel about the later years of the French Revolution. It follows the lives of impoverished people of France looking for a better life, for redemption. The main character is Jean Valjean, a convict who spent 19 years at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister's starving child. After he's released, an act of kindness makes him decide to turn his life around and he breaks his parole, changes his name, and starts again. Javert, a police inspector with a black and white view of morality makes it his mission to recapture Valjean.
The production had a very impressive cast on the whole. Stage and screen veteran, Hugh Jackman plays a sympathetic Valjean. He presents the aging of Valjean in a realistic manner. The sound of his voice seems to shift as time passes, especially in the finale of the film, you hear the sound of weakened, elderly man. Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit are very strong as the young revolutionaries, Marius and Enjolras. Redmayne is not known for his singing, but has a clear voice deeply laden with emotion. The song "Heart Full of Love," (which isn't one of my favorite of the show due to its slightly cliche' lyrics) feels strangely genuine, giddy, and comical in Redmayne's hands. Tveit's theatre experience comes across in his commanding performance as leader of the students. I'm dissapointed he wasn't featured more on the posters and other press for the film.
The female cast was generally strong as well. Anne Hathaway was surprisingly adept at marrying emotion with vocal quality. Samantha Barks, familiar to Les Mis fans from her performance in the 25th Anniversary concert reprises her role as Eponine to good effect.
The only person who seemed miscast was Russell Crowe as Javert. Not a natural singer, he handles all his solo work decently, but at times it seems like he's putting to much focus on his singing. He has trouble balancing the acting in a scene while he's singing. Not that he's particularly bad, but when so much of the rest of the cast shines at that balance, it's easier to notice his deficit.
Overall, the film was very strong and emotionally resonant. There were many sniffles among the audience as early as a half an hour into the film. The score is extremely powerful. That's the quality that has brought theatre going audience to their feet for the past twenty five year and it continues to be effective in film. As the press for the film has made clear, the actors sang on set instead of pre-recording their music. It gives a more organic feel and allows for the actors to experiment and really perform the songs as they would in a theatrical setting.
The film medium allows them to explore the scale of the story more and even find some gritty moments about the poverty people live in. The death scenes (of course there are are death scenes) are handled well. One particular death of one of the barricade boys is done especially well, as he is draped out of a window like a flag.
Fans of the musical and of historical dramas will find many things to enjoy about the newest adaptation of Hugo's classic 19th novel.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Brevity is the Soul of Wit: In Defense of Slim Novels

I see more agonizing over how long a novel "should be" than I feel is needed. My mystery novel (shiny new draft recently completed) clocks in at about 53k words. Short, but still above the prescribed 50k it must be to be considered a novel.
I suppose I find it frustrating when I see blog posts telling me that suspense and mystery novels should range 65k to 80k. Why? Not all agents and publishers adhere to these guidelines strictly, but it's still worrying to think that others may be discouraged by my manuscript length. Many classic mysteries like And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie and Hound of the Baskervilles wouldn't make that 65k requirement.
I think much depends on the author's style. Do they luxuriate over scenery or stay with a starker viewpoint? I personally write dialogue heavy pieces, allowing character and plot to explain itself in interactions between the characters. I simply prefer that way of conveying information to the audience (probably leftover from all the time I spent doing theatre and working with scripts).
I think many of us can agree that quantity doesn't automatically equal quality in a first novel. In creative writing classes, exercises where you shave away all your adjectives and exposition often prove liberating. I've been in my share of creative writing workshops where a little trimming did wonders. Young writers especially have a tendency to "clear their throats" at the beginning of pieces. Their first paragraph, stanza, or chapter can sometimes be eliminated entirely. I suppose I'm trying to write as tightly as possible. I don't want to give myself room to clear my throat.
That's not to say that many breathtaking novels haven't soared over 100k words. Some stories simply call for longer books if they have complex plots spanning over long periods of time or the author has to build an entirely new world on the page (in the case of fantasy).
Through subsequent edits, I may bulk out some characters or subplots of my novel and add a few thousand words. I just don't see the point in adding bulk for the sake of it.
Never write just for the sake of meeting a word count. Unless you're just having fun with NaNoWriMo. Or meeting a requirement for one of those creative writing classes. Even then, I feel like you should be working towards something with those words.
I'm sure that as readers, we've been equally touched by a slim novel (Ahem-- The Great Gatsby) as we have by a thicker text at some point in our lives. I suppose I'm trying to convince myself that ultimately it won't matter so much. That no one will try to pigeonhole me to YA fiction if I can't break 60k. That savvy literary agents know it doesn't really matter.
It's just hard writing between the standards. I wrote a novella last winter that I'm really proud of. It was my grand experiment trying to write layers of plot and character to follow a musical pattern (with refrains, variations, and harmonies). I love that piece, but I'm not sure what to do with it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Shiny New Drafts and Breathing Space

The semester is officially 100% finished. I've just sent off the shiny new draft of my mystery novel to my favorite reader: my English professor. She read my previous draft and gave me some very enthusiastic and thoughtful feedback.
So now I'm working on my Oxford story as well as the historical fiction piece I started in the spring. Aha, yes those of you who are keeping track would be correct, the count is now up to three major projects. That's right, I've been secretly working on a piece set at the turn of the century. Didn't know about that, did you? Enigmatic me. I suppose the piece is both historical fiction and crime fiction, but not in the usual way.
However, for the next few days, I've decided to take a much needed breather. I have serious end of semester fatigue. I haven't even been able to do any lengthy reading. Light reading, long walks, hot tea, and a Scrabble evening with my friend: that's what I need. And this week, that is what I shall endeavor to make time for. Then back to the manuscripts. Also back to my ever-growing reading list.
In my endeavor to write the kind of books I like to read, I've been trying to read as much literature that falls within my genres as possible. I've been working my way through piles of contemporary and classic crime and suspense literature. Then I began amassing Oxford based literature-- a more herculean task than I originally suspected. Of course this is also nerve wracking when seeing exquisite examples of writing and noting how crowded your genre is. Though, to be honest, most genres are crowded these days.
So, here's where I try to make some brain space.
Enjoy some music by The National.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Let's Get Thematic

So, as my story is coalescing more fully in my mind, I am starting to think ahead about what the story will really be about. Sometimes I'm very focused on thenplotmand the characters and it's not until I bang out the first draft that I start to analyze what the meaning is or could be. Sometimes I start toying with the deeper meanings earlier.
I don't write with the intention to have a "moral" or an incredibly philosophical comment on life come out of my story, but I think what makes a good novel good is that there is something said about life underneath the basic story. That is what will resonate with us, what will make us remember it more.
So what will my Oxford story be about?
I suppose what I'm interested in exploring is the idea of presumed love as a negative force. If love is something true, then it should be pursued in the least selfish terms possible. It ideally should purify us. We should become our best self under the influence of the object of our affection. Yet, so many people (especially young people) let what they think is love consume them. It devours them, they forget who they are or who they want to be. A positive thing, when applied incorrectly becomes a poison. Chasing an idealized relationship with an incompatible person is such a waste, such a trap people fall into.
That's a cynical thought, isn't it? I don't want to write an entirely cynical book, though. I think there is something about the fleeting beauty of being young and bright, with a world of potential ahead of you. Beauty is always more apparent when it is fleeting, of course- at least in retrospect. I think the story must be a somewhat realistic contrast of highs and lows. Sometimes those high points are positively euphoric, but it ebbs quite low in response. It should be a balance.
My main character, Ben, will have a classic source of tension, that aching desire to follow whatever it is you want from life, but getting caught up in the expectations others have of you.
I want a collage of experience from my characters. In some ways it will be a classic "dormitory" novel. The mixing personalities and backgrounds put into an academic pressure cooker. It breeds some of the best and worst moments of a person's life. But I want to go beyond that, I want to show what happens afterwards. I keep falling back on Brideshead Revisited, Waugh captures so well how the little incidents and the relationships you form can echo through the rest of your life as much as you try put it in the past.
Anyway, my semester is nearly done, so I'll be able to put some more time into this story over the next month.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Crossing into the Mind of the Male

As I'm drafting my Oxford story, I've realized that for it to function properly, it must be in the first person. When I mentioned this to my father (I often press-gang him into being a sounding  board) he said, "But your main character is male!"
I suppose there is a gap, a divide that one must cross when writing from the perspective of a character of a different gender. However, I'm not sure if there's any more of a gap when you're writing from a character of a different ethnic, economic, or cultural background. Though I believe most writers leave markings of themselves on their characters, most of us would say our characters are quite distinct from ourselves. This certainly breaks that age old trope that everything is autobiographical, though fifty years from now, undergrads will try and apply that theory to your work in essays they wrote the night before.
This will be my first time writing such a lengthy piece from a male point of view. I've decided not to make a fuss about it. I think that if I over-analyze and try to "sound masculine" that it will feel artificial. I just have to be true to the character. Maybe I have some confidence because I've been around men all my
 life. I grew up with a pack of brothers, have mostly male friends, and I am a daddy's girl. I feel like I have a small advantage over some females when it comes to how men speak, think, and interact.
This character in particular also fulfills a sort of Nick Carraway role. Like Nick in The Great Gatsby, Ben (my character) is in many ways, an observer. He's an outsider and we gain insight into this world through his introduction to it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Touch of Transparency; or What a Blog is For

I've been regaling, or boring you for the past three years with this blog. I wonder what you can surmise about me and my work from its contents.
What I've also been wondering of late is why I have this neurotic compulsion to be secretive about my writing. I've even been quite secretive about this blog in the past. For the first year I never told anyone I knew that I was a blogger.
Perhaps what is pushing me toward greater transparency is my realization that I really want to launch my writing career and that my blog might be a helpful tool in this regard. I should talk about my writing, share excerpts from it, get feedback. I can get rather phobic about people reading my unedited work (or even my edited work) and it needs to stop. This year I took a major step by letting my professor read my extremely rough manuscript and I found it to be a rewarding growth experience.
She didn't rip me to shreds. She realized that the piece was in its early stages. Instead she gave me enthusiastic feedback and support. I realize this is the internet and that there are plenty of people who have nothing more fulfilling to do with their time than criticize and wound, but the people who have opinions that actually matter aren't here to do that.
So here I am, about to do my last semester at college. I've just set down my mystery manuscript after a round of major revisions. I'm realizing that it is a hard book to boil down to a query letter. I'm trying to give myself some distance from the project, hoping it will be easier for me to be objective about if it's not so fresh in mind.
Instead of stagnating though, I'm starting work on a new project. I suppose that the secret to my eventual success is, quite simply, that I'm always working on something. I'm writing a poem or a short story. I'm outlining a sequel or drafting a new novel. It's all the honing of a craft. Working on characterization in a short story can help me realize why the motivation feels forced in my novel. Playing with language and description in a poem lets me practice developing a sense of atmosphere.
In the midst of all my course work I wrote four chapters of a new novel this week. It's going to be an Oxford story. And maybe I don't have the right to attempt to follow in the footsteps of Evelyn Waugh or Dorothy Sayers, or Philip Larkin, but Oxford lends itself to stories. I couldn't help but start forming ideas while I was there, and recent conversations with friends I met there has assured me that this is a story I need to write.
I'm trying to write the kind of book I love to read.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Poetry: Billy Collins, "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes"

While reading the new Writer's Chornicle, I came across a reference to this poem. I thought it was lovely, so I decided to share it with you all. It certainly evokes a more sensual view of Dickinson. It also playfully describes the searching feeling readers and scholars have when sorting through the many layers in her work, but also the layers of information about her as a person.

"Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes"

First, her tippet made of tulle,

easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.
And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer's dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women's undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cold Weather: Cold Blooded Murder

Something about the fall makes me want to read more mysteries. And write more mysteries. It's true that any time is a good time for a detective novel (I'm currently making my way through Redbreast by Jo Nesbø). And nearly any story I write has a body show up somewhere. Still. The cold, the colors changing, the flora, it's suggestive somehow.
I wonder if we don't still sense the slightly more desperate circumstances that cold weather brings. That somehow it is harder to survive, more dangerous in the coming winter. We can sympathize with the danger faced by the protagonists more readily.
There's also something to be said about cold weather being reading weather. Winter is defined by thick books and steaming tea cups.
The ancient Celts were no strangers to long cold winters. The tradition of story telling was incredibly rich in the culture. They say the Celtic bards dedicated themselves to their craft and could tell a different story every winter night. If you've read or heard any Celtic myths or lore, you'll know they were not strangers to betrayals, battles, and blood. So, perhaps not so very different from what we spend the winter amusing ourselves with today.
Do you find that you also read seasonally? Or perhaps escape into a sultry summer story in the depths of winter?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Downton Abbey Series 3-- A reveiw

Everyone's favorite Sunday night guilty pleasure just finished its third season in the UK. It hasn't officially aired in the US yet, so I'll be marking spoilers.
Audiences certainly had plenty to look forward to. We had the promise of a smack down between Lady Violet and Cora's American mother, played by veteran actress Shirley McLaine. We had the teaser that there would be two wedding and that Sybil and Branson would be returning to bring the first grandchild to Downton Abbey.
The question is: did it deliver? In many ways it did not.
The first and second seasons had very different atmospheres which to some degree was appropriate, it showed the way the world was drastically changing. To compensate (sometimes over-compensate) for the gritty war element, sometimes the stories became a bit over romanticized on the home front. Still, it was so well woven that audiences were riveted and engaged on the whole.
This season seems to struggle with finding its footing. In a post-war world everything can't go back as it was. For the first few episodes, there isn't much of a driving plot. We have the news that Downton is in some financial trouble. We have the wedding of Mary and Matthew, we also have Edith reaching for her own love story. Downstairs, there is a new footman and Mrs. Hughes fears she may be seriously ill. There is an awkward love polygon between some of the younger servants as well. None of this really seems to coalesce at first. We randomly shift between these disconnected plots.
I had expected the interaction between Shirley McLaine and Maggie Smith to really take center stage in these first few episodes, but it didn't. It fell a bit flat. McLaine's character felt like set dressing more than a necessary character. Even Maggie Smith's dowager countess felt underwritten this season. Her famous quips and subtle manipulation were in short supply.
Another character that felt like a prop for most of the series was Sybil. She was one of my favorite characters in the first two season, but when she returns pregnant from Ireland, her only job seems to be bringing back Branson so he can clash with the family.
Finally in the last few episodes we seem to be moving toward something resembling a through-line to the story. They make many character damaging missteps along the way though. Downton Abbey is still of higher quality than many shows on television, but this season it loses some of its luster, and indeed, breaks some hearts.

I felt that Edith's marriage plot was especially badly handled. I defended the program last series when some said it was turning to a soap opera or melodrama. The war setting made it somewhat acceptable to have larger and sometimes unbelievable stories. It didn't feel too inappropriate. Having Edith jilted at the alter and experience such a grand scale of humiliation felt cheap.
Another unbelievable element of the story telling was Matthew's inheritance. It was neatly and conveniently tied in a bow and placed in his lap just when Downton needs cash. And of course, being a deus ex machina as it is, it comes with a letter absolving Matthew of all guilt about Lavinia.
The most serious misstep in my opinion, however, was how they killed off Sybil. As I said before, she drifts along in this series without a plot. Fiery, opinionated Sybil does nothing much but have a baby. And that kills her. For a light Sunday night drama, her death was unnecessarily graphic and horrific. Even when showing death in wartime, the series has never showed that level of horror. It seemed like a cheap attempt to make the series grittier at the expense of its viewers.
Sybil becomes a plot device to bring Branson to Downton and facilitate some sort of alliance between him, Matthew, and Lord Grantham. I think the alliance worked well in the last few episodes, but it was a cheap way to do it and unfair to the character. A character who has been so strong and known her own mind was left helpless with men talking over her, deciding her fate.
I thought this season was very weak compared to the previous two.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Things are looking up...

Perhaps. I've just put in some applications, though of course I don't know if I'll get anything from them, but the act of putting them in gives me a sense of accomplishment and control. I hope to get some sort of response (from at least one of them) soon
I also won a drawing I entered months ago on the PBS website. I won series one and two of Sherlock on DVD. That certainly cheered me. I barely even remember entering-- another example of me not expecting to much, but actually getting something.
At the literary society event tonight I dressed as Jane Austen and served tea. That was fun. My kooky friend Jess dressed as Henry David Thoreau. Somehow our interactions during the evening led us to the decision to tag-team a NaNoWriMo about the two of them. Not sure how that's going to turn out.
I've nearly finished this round of edits on my mystery novel and I'm taking a break from it while figuring out how to attempt getting it published. I have some very specific ideas about what I want from all the research I've done, of course I'm still looking for some guidance from those who have been there before. Right now I'm focusing on shorter pieces for my multi-genre writing workshop. I had a great batch of drafting last night.
And I've been listening to a lot of Seawolf. Maudlin music always has a cheering effect on me.

So thanks for bearing with me through all the crazy.
And I'm going to Italy in the spring. If that's not a sign of things looking up, I'm not sure what is.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

I was skeptical at first. To be honest though, I'm always skeptical, it lesson the likelihood of disappointment. Yes, I always have been a little rain cloud. I digress. My kooky and wonderful friend Jess (who may be doing her history masters focusing in Viking history-- I know some amazing people), showed me this vlog called "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries."
The premise is this: Elizabeth Bennet is a 21st century woman. She lives in California with her sisters Jane and Lydia, their father, and their southern belle mother who is constantly trying to get them settled. Lizzie doing her MA in Communications while living at home and making video blogs with the help of her best friend Charlotte.
The way they adapt Pride and Prejudice to a modern setting is very clever. It's probably one of the better modernizations of Austen's work I've seen. Perhaps because it doesn't take itself too seriously. Rather than getting too caught up on the "Romance" genre constantly imposed on Austen's work, it's very funny, but occasionally hits some serious notes. There are allusions to Austen throughout as well.
Overall it's very fun and makes for perfect guilty pleasure viewing (I needed new literary shenanigans since Strindberg and Helium haven't updated in ages...). Each video is 3-7 minutes long and they update quite regularly. I believe the team is up to about 55 videos and the story is just beginning. Here's the first:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Writing for Money and other Different Skill Sets

Sorry for the silence on this end.
I'm getting to the point in my life where I have to seize adulthood, independence, etc. I also have to get used to writing for different reasons. No longer am I simply writing essays for classes, stories and poems for myself. Now I'm writing to convince people to give me money, accept me into programs, buy my creative writing.
Application essays, query letters: they're a different skill set. It's a balance between informative and interesting. Between confidence and cockiness. No little artistic flourishes such as stand-alone phrases allowed (see previous sentence fragment). Suddenly I'm a slave to the basic rules of punctuation and grammar. They're no longer gentle guidelines I can bend for emphasis or fun. My bad habits (I tend to overuse commas) are glaring errors that need immediate attention.
Writing a novel is not the same as writing a query. Receiving an English degree doesn't mean anyone's going to pay you to use it.
The big dream would be for me to spend next year working/studying abroad. By the end of that year I would hope to have something in the works for getting my novel published.
The big dream is to live by my pen. Not grandly, but just enough to take care of myself.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Elementary.... Sherlock Holmes in 21st Century New York

When it was announced that CBS would be doing their own modern take on Sherlock Holmes (after the BBC wouldn't allow them to remake Sherlock) fans of Holmes were startled and alarmed. Especially when it was announced that Watson would be played by Lucy Liu. It certainly goes against tradition.
So was it worth all the kerfuffle?
In some respects no. In last night's pilot of Elementary, Lucy Liu proved herself very adept at being the every man foil to an unhinged detective. As the element people were most worried about, she was a pleasant surprise. From a design point of view, she also had a very good "look." I also don't mind the New York setting. It can work.
I suppose my main criticism of the show thus far (and I realize most network shows need to settle in over the first few episodes) is that it's sort of bland. Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes is an arrogant detective and recovering drug addict. Yes, he may have the capacity to be an interesting character, but he's not yet. Nothing is really screaming "Holmes" about him either. He keeps bees, that was the one token quirk they threw the audience last night. The possibility of Holmes' father is new to the pastiche genre and may have some possibility, but I'm still not convinced by the writing or Miller's portrayal of the character. He doesn't have the mystique or the charisma yet.
The NYPD is also really boring. So far we've seen Captain Gregson who worked with Holmes while he was abroad attached to Scotland Yard. Their history and relationship doesn't really read at this point. Detective Abreu seems like someone Holmes might rub the wrong way. In their first scene, Holmes disproves the Detective's assumptions about a crime scene. Yet, later in the episode he does Holmes' bidding with little trouble. Right now the police are just placeholders, filling a function, not real people with internal lives and the possibility for conflict.
I wish they hadn't advertised this as a Sherlock Holmes adaptation. If they had changed everyone's names, I would have no trouble enjoying it as a new "consulting detective" show on CBS. We could have had a show that pays homage to Holmes in its inspiration instead of a "Sherlock Holmes" show that never quite delivers.
There is a good possibility that the show will find its footing and be quite decent. But nothing so far says it's Sherlock Holmes to me. Sherlock Holmes wouldn't have kinky ladder sex with a prostitute. I also don't believe that he would ever have a "temper tantrum" to the extreme he does in this pilot. His mind is always in control. He may do bizarre things, but it's for a purpose, a master plan. So far, I'm not certain Miller's Holmes is capable of the "long-game," if you will. How will he cope when a Moriarty is eventually introduced?
Some fans are rejoicing the fact that Miller is an attractive and competent actor that they can enjoy in the role for twenty or so episodes per season. Yes it's hard to wait a year and half for each set of three episodes from Sherlock, but they are more than episodes, aren't they? They're really mini-films. "A Study in Pink" held up side by side with this first episode creates a sad comparison. Really, there is no comparison. Elementary is.... HolmesLite. We'll be getting a decent, Sherlock Holmes-ish series in great quantity, but nowhere near the quality and detail of Sherlock.
So will I watch it? Probably. At least unless they do something that's unforgivable to me. It's just an entirely different beast from Sherlock.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Passing Thoughts on Finding Inspiration

"How do you get your ideas?"
It's inevitable. If you write, or paint, or compose, or do anything creative, people wonder where the grain of that idea comes from. Even creative people wonder about where the ideas of other creative people come from. There's something mystical and secretive about the creative process: no wonder the ancients believed in the Muses arriving and blessing the artists with ideas. It's as good an analogy as any.
Most writers have a process, a schedule, a pattern, for when they're writing. That initial burst of thought: that unraveling of images that somehow gives you a character, or a plot, or a theme, that's much less scientific.
Writers can provoke inspiration by exposing themselves to things that have the capacity to be inspiring. By reading, watching films, traveling, or trying something new, you expose yourself to new people, ideas, and sensations. Sometimes things just randomly align for no reason.
What's most important (in my young, limited experience) is not dismiss small inspirations. Just because you don't have a fully formed idea doesn't mean you might not have something important. Keeping a little notebook on you at all times is essential. Write down that unusual name you heard, or that fragment of a line that occurred to you while in line at the grocery store. When you flip back through your notebook, you might realize that some of these little things might go together. You might have your big inspiration after all.
I wrote a short story almost two months ago. I wasn't entirely happy with where it ended up, so I put it aside. Tonight while sitting in a linguistics class watching a video of Noam Chompsky talking about Universal Language, I suddenly knew. I knew how I could fix that story.
The mind is an amazing thing. Sometimes it might be working on a problem in the background, in the subconscious. We just have to live our lives and work on other things. The inspiration will come. And if it doesn't.... well, we do something else until it does.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has had a weird breakthrough in the middle of something totally unrelated.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bill Bryson: The Mother Tongue

The Mother Tongue: English and How it got that Way is a delightful book. Anyone interested in language, etymology, or history will love this book. Anyone vaguely curious about why English can seems so strange or confusing will find it enlightening and amusing.
Bryson works his way through some of the basics of the history of the language: how a bastardized peasant tongue somehow became one of the dominant languages of the world. Some of the sketchier bits of history like "the great vowel shift" are skirted over with good reason: there is no definitive understanding of that strange happening to this day. Dialects, American and British are discussed, as well as how the names of places and people came to be, and also the origins of swear words.
What always rings clear in this book is the fact that language is not a permanent thing. English is strangely malleable, constantly shifting, picking up bits of other languages, and changing. Where some languages have change very little in the past thousand years (so much so, you could read ancient manuscripts with little difficulty), old English is nearly unrecognizable to modern readers. Though Bryson admits English has its failings and that other languages are more expressive or sensible in certain areas, his love of the language is seen on every page. He reminds native speakers that the language they speak is beautiful, expressive, and unique among world languages.
Perhaps he is a little biased in his love of English, and doesn't go into all the textbook definitions. It's not a textbook, and it never feels like one. Overall, it's a book that is both fun to read and will teach you dozens of new things about the English language. Something about Bryson's voice is engaging and personable. You feel like you're chatting with an incredibly smart friend while having a drink together on a lazy Friday night. I'm currently in a Linguistics class at the moment, and I must say, that though The Mother Tongue seems light on the science, it was a fantastic book to read before the class. Nearly all of the topics on our syllabus were touched on by Bryson. I feel much more prepared than going into the class cold.

Friday, September 7, 2012

No Room For You (in the workforce)

Perhaps it's my own fault for keeping an email account with Yahoo. It seems like every few months they post a new story about "useless" college majors. They're not the only culprit, plenty of news sources print and post such articles.
In their most recent article, they discussed the usual "worst" majors (mine, English, included). When discussing the poor job prospects for philosophy majors the writer said,"Our philosophy, at least, is to look into a major with a better return on investment."
Hilarious. It seems that this is the mindset toward education now. We treat it like a product. Commercials for online degrees are a perfect example of this. "I want to get my degree faster." "I don't want to take classes I don't need." If only we could streamline it and have people line up to get implanted with a micro-chip labelled "bachelor's degree."
I don't understand how anyone can call something that enriches your mind a waste. The concept of the Renaissance Man is now outmoded. People want to take the classes that give them a specific set of skills that will enable them to do a specific job that will bring home a certain sized paycheck. 
It's true that perhaps if I had gone into the sciences I would have a more certain job when I graduate, but I prefer language and literature. Obviously most of the people pursuing the "worst" degrees are doing them because they love them. They are more interested in feeding the soul than feeding the wallet. These constant articles in the media beating down the Arts and Humanities are basically saying to me: "There's no room for you."
There's no room for the poets, the philosophers, the painters. There's no room for the people who appreciate beauty or show us society in a new light. There's no room for people who try to give us greater understanding and consciousness. We don't need them as long as we have doctors, lawyers, scientists, and investment bankers.
You shouldn't go to school to become a smarter, better person, you should go to school so you can make lots of money. Even if you do it by studying a subject you don't love.
I know that I won't be a Warren Buffet. I will never live in a mansion or have servants.  I will live in an apartment and cook Ramen noodles over a hot plate. So what? There are more important things in my opinion. I'm a story teller and I don't have a choice. I came out of the womb that way. 
I think I've gained something from every college course I've taken-- even the courses that weren't in my major. Thanks to our liberal arts curriculum, I've take classes in biology, sociology, mathematics. I don't think they were a waste. Learning something new can only improve your mind for whatever it is you plan on doing.
<I can't help but wonder if the writer of that article is just a frustrated English major stuck writing for Yahoo now. And consider: would the world be any richer had Shakespeare chosen the more sensible profession of fishmonger or become a glover like his father?

Friday, August 31, 2012

Reclaiming August

"I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking." -- William Butler Yeats

View from the Exeter Fellows Garden
I'm falling back into life now. My study abroad was magical, beautiful, life changing, and possibly soul eating. Soul eating because I left part of myself (and accidentally part of my favorite scarf...) in Oxford. Not just in Oxford, but I feel like with the people I met there. My soul is clearly just scattered about to the winds right now. Pieces now reside across the United States, various locations in Europe, and in Australia with thirty four of the most beautiful people I ever met.

There is an Oxford shaped hole in me now. It sounds dramatic and it is. It was one of the most intense and exciting experiences of my life, a major perspective changer. Now here's the cliche bit: when traveling the world and learning about everything around you, you ultimately learn a lot about yourself (unless you have no self-awareness). I think I found what I'm yearning for. While many of my friends are getting married and having babies at an alarming rate, I'm yearning for adventure. I don't want to settle down the way they do, I want to be a nomad. I want to have all the crazy stories and the travel scars. I want to lose more of my soul to more places and more people, because I think eventually I'll find the right people and the right place to consume all the space I'll be making within myself.

I really felt like a writer there. I felt like a competent adult as well. I traveled thousands of miles from home by myself and found friends among strangers. Never did I feel overwhelmed or even very homesick.
So I've been regrouping since I got back. Mostly that means I've been plotting how to go abroad again. This is my senior year. Over the next few months I have to either get myself into good job or an academic program that won't cost me any money. On top of that, I'm hoping that one of those things will also get me out of the US again.

My novel is in a new draft, revisions have been going really well. I'm still setting store by my writing taking me places, but I'm not so naive that I think I'll have a publishing deal by the time I graduate. Even if I do, I know it can take years for a book to hit the shelves, and maybe longer to gain any attention that actually leads to your book producing money. Maybe hiding out in a grad program until it does is a good idea...
I don't know where these next months will lead me, but I'm praying for the next adventure to come knocking on my door soon. There is a small fear that it will never be as good as Oxford. My first adventure abroad set the bar so high. I understand the expression "going down from Oxford" now. Everything seems like a bit of a downer after Oxford.
Turl Street, Oxford: Our last night

Saturday, August 11, 2012


I'm sitting on a bus headed for London at this moment. Oxford is fading behind me. Last night we had a formal dinner where we were given our certificates for the program. We ended up in the student bar afterwards, Grace brought her guitar. We sang songs like "Wagon Wheel." I read out some thoughts I had written down in the Fellow's Garden-- and I'm not usually one to stand on chairs and give speeches, beer in hand. Then we all headed to the King's Arms with the waitstaff, since they finally didn't "work for us" anymore.
I barely slept last night. Still, I didn't cry. I was caught up in everyone, in the shenanigans of one final night, mild though they were. I was in bed by midnight, but up long after that.
It wasn't until this afternoon, as the taxi took me to the bus station and I watched Oxford rolling past me, I began sobbing (as quietly as I could manage). The cabbie tactfully ignored my raw face while helping me unload my luggage. Now I'm sitting here with all these other travelers. There are other Americans, perhaps heading to Heathrow to go back to the states. We're all being quietly jostled in this cold bus, our luggage stowed below.
I almost ran off to Scotland for five days. I was invited by a friend, and it was very tempting, but I'm low on cash, have too much luggage, and my classes start up in two weeks.
Part of me recognizes that this particular adventure is over, I felt that yesterday. I need to go home and reshuffle my deck now.
But Oxford, you've taken a piece of my heart. And I know so much of it was the perfect alignment of people in the program. The people filled those stone wall with life, music, chaos. Somehow the program director managed to select thirty five soul mates for this program. It's sad because there are some people in the program that fill a role, a void in my collection of friends. I don't have anyone like them at home. It's a bit of a jolt to have them ripped away so soon after forming these intense bonds.
I know I'm being dramatic. I've had about ten offers for me to come and visit in Sydney, Melbourne, Vienna,  Los Angeles, Chicago, London: all the places my new friends are from. Maybe someday I'll take them up on the offer.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Adventures of a Yank in Oxford

I guess I haven't been posting regularly because part of me doesn't want to acknowledge that time here is slipping away, that I'll be back in America next week. I want to hold this close to me, like maybe if I keep quiet, I can stay in this Oxford bubble longer, no one will notice me and send me home.
This is my last week at Exeter College and I'm profoundly sad that it's ending. This afternoon four of us went down to Christ Church Meadows and laid out in the grass reading The Virgin Suicides aloud to each other, then played Orange Under Chin, made clover chains. It seems ethereal and other worldly, partly because of the people I'm with. It's such a mixed, exciting bunch of people all passionate about the same thing I am: language, stories, books. Partly though, it's Oxford itself. The town is malleable and can be whatever you want or need it to be. There's a bustling market of high street shops, parks and gardens, pubs, clubs, museums, the rivers, tea shops, theatre: if you can't find something to do here, you aren't trying hard enough. But at the same time, it's not a huge city. There's still so much green. Early in the morning or late in the evening you have the streets virtually to yourself.
Exeter is a beautiful, history laden college as well. Established in 1314, it is (I believe) the third college of the University. It sits basically in the center of town. Perched at the top of our Fellow's Garden you can look out on the Radcliffe Camera (above) and the Bodleian Library. It's close to plenty of great pubs, the Covered Market, several book shops, a Sainsbury's, a cinema; close to all we could need here. Several episodes of Inspector Morse and Lewis have been filmed here. Morse had his famous death scene in front of the Exeter chapel (where they have glorious Baroque concerts during the week), and the 2009 Lewis episode "The Quality of Mercy" was filmed in and around the quad and gardens here.
Our program has been really wonderful as well. Every weekday we have writing professionals: publishers, booksellers, literary agents, poets, come and speak to us. We also have four seminars a week in our chosen area of literature. Everyone is always writing around the campus. There was a paper swap in the student bar and a writing party in my dorm room over the weekend. Best of all: we genuinely are working together, supporting each other, swapping ideas, and producing work.
I know writers have to keep in touch with the world, but there is something so wonderful about being in this little commune with all these other writers. Today, David Fickling of David Fickling Books spoke to us. He mentioned that he thought writing was an intensely social activity. It was funny, usually we think of the writer locked in their basement or study for hours on end, but it's true, writers desperately need to balance that solitude with social interaction, especially with other writers and readers. We need that interchange, we need to be with our species who understand us.
I love Oxford. I'm already contriving ways to come back here. And I'm so glad I came on this study abroad. This weekend though, I know I'll probably be in tears as I leave, because after three weeks it already feels like home. I can't bear to think of this town going on without me. I don't want to miss anything.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Yank in Oxford: Day 5

I've managed to pick up a cold which is very uncomfortable and fatiguing. I want to be out every spare moment between classes exploring and writing, but with my throat a gravel road and my nose a faucet, I've had to tone it back a bit.
Last night we took a walk around University Park, which is beautiful but full of insects and in certain spots, litter. We almost trampled the cricket green, but our chaperon, Richard, stopped us in time.
As we walked through town to get to the park, Richard told us anecdotes about the various colleges we passed. Apparently Trinity and Balliol have a major rivalry. In the sixties it is reported that students from Balliol turfed the JCR of Trinity college and in turn, Trinity hoisted a "For Sale" sign over Balliol.
Keble college has a tense history with some of the other Oxford colleges as well. The red brick design was considered to be so ugly that a society was formed for the destruction of Keble. Members would pull bricks out of the building to tear it down slowly. Another student, Cate, said she went to get a closer look at Keble, and indeed, there are pocks in the building where bricks are missing. Some say that they would give you a free drink if you brought a Keble brick to The King's Arms.
Exeter, the college I'm at is one of the most central colleges in the town. We're right off the High Street, next to the covered market, and other major shopping areas. The benefits are that we walk out of our door and are immediately near something to see or do. Unfortunately, for rooms facing the street, the pubs can get quite noisy at night especially for staircase 15. Since we aren't within the college, walls, but out on the street, we hear quite a bit of shouting and singing late at night from the pubs.
However, staircase 15 was spared the hubbub of this morning. Apparently an insect flew into the smoke detector and somehow set it off around 4 am. Everyone in the first 14 staircases had to stumble out in their pajamas.
I'm having trouble with my card reader, but promise to get some photos up this weekend!
Last night seven of us hit Eagle and Child and then Lamb and Flag, I'll have to give my full view of those later  in some sort of pub master post.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Yank in Oxford: The First 36 Hours

I'm actually surprised how quickly I'm getting over my jet-lag. I forced myself to stay awake until ten o'clock last night (after arriving yesterday morning). Arriving wasn't so bad either, though I did doze off on the train, I woke up before my stop.
So far, I've already taken a few walks around the city and have seen several of the other colleges. We went on a "Pub Walk" to two pubs tonight, I tried a half of some of the local beers. This afternoon I bought books at "The Last Book Store" where all the books are two pounds-- I'm afraid that shop will make me go over my luggage weight allowance very quickly. Then another student and I went to the Bodleian and didn't have time for a tour, but went to the Divinity School and the tea shop.
I feel morally obligated to drink all the tea I possibly can while in England.
Similarly, I feel obligated to take in some Shakespeare while I'm here. There are several productions going on at the moment, so I should make at least one.
I did also try marmite at breakfast this morning. A savory yeast paste on my toast? Odd. Takes some getting used to. I might like it on something else, or in something, it's very strong on its own.
Anyway, I'm swooning over all the old buildings, taking dozens of photographs which I'll upload later this week, and just generally getting the lay of the land so far.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Countdown to Oxford: Misconceptions

One more week stateside, so I thought I'd collect the best, or rather the worst misconceptions about Oxford, England, and Europe in general I've heard over the last few months.
Now, I have plenty of really intelligent culturally aware friends, but sometimes they say things that are ridiculous or not properly thought through. They sometimes realize it shortly after they've said it. A few of these comments were made in earnest, by some less culturally aware friends and acquaintances, which does make me question American education.

"Will you have the internet in England?"

"It's not like England's in Europe."

"You're going to be so close to everything, you'll have to take a day to go to the Swiss Alps."

"Oxford, London, what's the difference?"

"I've been telling everyone about your trip to London."

"You do know that everyone in England hates Americans, right? It's a good thing you're not going to France, they really hate us all."

"You'll have to go to Paris on the weekends, it'll be like, an hour away."

"It'll be all chicks at Oxford, right? I mean it's a girls school."

"Are you going to go to the palace? Can you have tea with the Queen there?"

I'm always afraid of sounding snotty when I correct people. I've given up on trying to persuade everyone that I'm not spending a month in London as they all seem to think. It's true that on the whole, the countries in Europe are much smaller than the US. England is only about the size of my home state, Pennsylvania. It still takes eight or nine hours to get from one corner of the state to the other, so I don't know why history and geography classes haven't given us a more clear understanding of spacial relationship between the countries.
As I've said before, I consider all the people who made these statements to be sufficiently intelligent, so I blame it on the weird US-centric bubble around our education that leads to these "ugly American" misconceptions.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Countdown to Oxford

So, I'm less than two weeks away from departing for foreign shores.
I have my passport, my luggage, my required reading, my rain coat, and a heart full of hope. About a month ago I started getting nervous about my trip, started feeling very apprehensive. I think it was just because there's been so much waiting. I found out in March that I would be taking this trip. Initially there was plenty to do: arrange for course credit, apply for financial aid, get my passport, plenty to do. After all that, there was nothing to do, but wait. It was the waiting that was anxiety producing.
Now that I'm close enough to do other preparations, the anxiety has faded.
I have so many things I want to do and see while I'm in England. Three weeks is not going to be enough. Most of my time will be spent at the university, though there's plenty to see around there (Bodleian Library, Christ Church Meadow, the Eagle and Child). On the weekends I'll be able to stray from the boundaries of Oxford. I likely won't spend any time in London, except to catch a train, but with the Olympics coming to town the week after I arrive it will be crowded and covered in too much bunting anyway.
I'll have to go back to the UK at some point. I don't just want to see more of England, I want to see Scotland, Ireland. Of course, my trip might be disillusioning, I may not like the UK as much as I think, but I have a feeling I will. My professor told me I probably won't want to come home.
Maybe I'll become like Henry James or T.S. Eliot and adopt Britain as my home and muse.
Lately though, finding inspiration hasn't been a problem. I've been working constantly and steadily on a new story while jotting down the occasional note about another idea. I also have the manuscript for my mystery novel back from my Professor with some notes. She really enjoyed it and that gives me so much confidence. When I finish my next draft, she said she will proof it for me before I start sending out queries for it. Her encouragement and belief in it being publishable are such a help to me.
I do spend much of my "writer time" alone at my desk or in a coffee shop. It's nice to share and get feedback from others. I look forward to being in a group of other young writers at Oxford. Hopefully I can make some connections to find and give support. The tutors should be a big source of support as well, they are all in writing fields and the small group sessions will hopefully make for a cozy atmosphere.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Scenes from a Bookstore: Petulant Teenager

"I'm never coming back in here ever again!" I hear a girl about thirteen whine to her father as he gets in line at the local B&N. I'm in line in front of them, two novels in my hands.
"Never ever?" her father says flatly. He doesn't even look at her, probably used to her tantrums by now.
She gestures to the books in his hand, "You could just get a Nook. Then you could get those in, like, two seconds and we wouldn't have to come in here anymore."
He ignores her suggestion and patiently waits for the line to creep forward while she stalks off to the cafe inside the shop.
My brow inadvertently furrows: there are plenty of things to tempt a non-reader in a Barnes and Noble. There are movies, music, board games, Ugly Dolls. I can't help but think that this girl is being unreasonable and is not concerned so much with the fifteen minutes trapped in this purgatory, but afraid that some of her friends might see her there.
Just a few years ago, the media started telling us that smart was sexy, nerds were the new cool. It appears the pendulum is swinging back and to be caught browsing at a Barnes and Noble is somehow shameful and embarrassing to these local teens now.
Being "cool" as I understand it is being interesting. Being a person with something to bring to conversations, something new to offer to your circle of peers seems a lot cooler than bringing nothing but the latest Facebook news. Maybe I'm just old fashioned.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Music Review: Scythian, It's Not Too Late

I don't normally do music reviews, but music was my first love. Scythian is a band I've seen play live a dozen or more times. They're extraordinary when doing live shows. It's the only band I've ever seen successfully make their audience do leg kicks in unison. Perhaps they use hypnosis, or perhaps it's the intoxicating strains of the fiddle.
One of the hardest things about a band with so much live charisma is the ability to capture that energy and personality in a studio album. Wisely, the band has released two live albums which are the next best thing to seeing them (though if they come to your neighborhood, I suggest you get to a show). It's Not Too Late is their newest studio album, released just a year after their previous, American Shanty.
It's Not Too Late marks a slight shift in their sound, as they explore the many facets of their musical identity: Celtic, bluegrass, Americana, southern rock, Eastern European gypsy sound, folk, and more. Somehow they blend all these aspects to make a sound that is uniquely Scythian. They've become known in Celtic and folk music circles for their raw and raucous fiddle and guitar sounds that are covered with the dust of the road and the colors of their travels. This album shows us some of the softer side of Scythian; perhaps Scythian in love? The title track of the album, is a gentle song about taking your opportunities to find love. This theme is touched on again in the sweet sentiment of "End of the Street"-- a song about falling a little bit in love while living the gypsy life style of a musician, and that feeling is capped with the penultimate track of the album, the addictive "That Girl." It's a rollicking southern rock song that could have easily been the hot song of the summer thirty or forty years ago. It has a charming sense of nostalgia.
The instrumental tracks on the album show off the traditional Celtic licks of the group with the "Sheldon House Reels," a powerful piece that builds on two fiddles and two guitars. "Halloran's Jig" will definitely tempt you to do some amateurish Irish dancing. The band reached back to their roots with the Ukranian, "Arkan" which takes you another time and place with a sense of tradition captured by its mournful fiddle and masculine chanting.
This has been a transition year for the band, losing one member and gaining two more. Unfortunately the two brothers who form the hub of the band, Alexander and Danylo Fedoryka suffered a personal loss recently as well. This album is dedicated to their late mother who is memorialized in the song, "The Only One."
No doubt, things are changing for the boys of Scythian, they've cut down their touring schedule for 2012 and are maybe developing in some new directions. After about a decade on the road, this shift might be just what they need to breathe new life into their music. They remain one of my favorite groups, especially to watch live. The albums are never the same as experiencing their performance, but their latest offering is solid and has many powerful highlights that emphasize the band's almost chameleon like versatility, but ultimately shows us that in spite of all the variety, it's always all Scythian.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Modern Fairy Tales: Angela Carter, AS Byatt

Fairy tales are one of the oldest and most basic forms or storytelling. How can a writer resist? I began experimenting with writing fairy tales and have now compiled quite a little collection of my own. What to do with them? I'm not sure. There's the possibility of sending some out individually to journals like Fairy Tale Review. There's also the possibility of publishing a collection somewhere down the line.
The idea of fairy tale collections for adult readers is not a new one. Angela Carter published The Bloody Chamber in the 70s. I recently finished reading it this slim volume. It's a fascinating exploration of fairy tale archetypes and the timelessness of imagination and even sometimes superstition. She sometimes explores the same type of tale several different ways. Carter offers two different versions of the Beauty and the Beast story in the collection, and two variations on Little Red Riding Hood. The collection also includes a bawdy and wicked version of Puss in Boots, an unsettling adaptation of the German lore surrounding the Erlking, a story of a young vampiress who is dissatisfied with her role as queen of the night, as well as several other tales. It's a wonderful read.
Over the winter I read AS Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories, it's perhaps more distant from the classic tales of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm than Carter's collection. The stories of Black Book... are more grounded in the contemporary world, but explore how magic happens in them: how love can cast a spell, loss can make us change our shape, and how monsters can invade our life.
Fairy tales never were intended for children, that's why many of them are far more gruesome than the sanitized Disney films we watched as youngsters. They often explore danger and the deep instinctual fears of humans. That's why themes of lost children, cannibalism, and darkness pervade theses stories. Modern writers take up the cause of exploring these fears and exploring the moral complexities such stories can contain. What it means to be a hero or a heroine is an ever shifting framework.
What are your favorite fairy tales new or old?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The James Joyce Experience

Yes, yes, I know all the Bloomsday posts went out yesterday. I'm too non-linear for that.
In honor of Bloomsday I began reading Ulysses last night. It has sat on my shelf since I started college, but I've always been too timid to delve into it. I tested the waters with The Dubliners, reading it mostly out of order ("Araby" in one class, "The Dead" in another, then finally sitting down to read the rest of the collection on my own). I enjoyed it, some sections more than others. In one year I will be graduated with a BA in English (no singing please), so I decided to finally tackle this intimidating tome.
What has pleasantly surprised me is how funny the novel is. The characters are rich and lively, I can hear and see them quite clearly. The little observations of life and Joyce's tendency to make up and combine words make this quirky and avant garde.
That's not to say this is an easy read by any means. No. I've read the first section in the past twenty-four hours and am currently taking a breather. The end of the section crescendos into a stream of conscience marathon where we're half in the real world and half in the mind of Stephen. Images pile on images. Images of religion, nature, sensuality and meld together and follow the thoughts of a young writer.
James Joyce: literary pirate.
Joyce traveled and even lived chiefly in Paris for the last twenty years of his life, but all of his stories are firmly grounded in Dublin. He even recycles characters between his novels. I didn't realize it until I looked up some of the background information on this particular novel (thanks again Wikipedia) that Stephen from Ulysses is the main character of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Joyce is still acknowledged as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. It was Joyce that perfected the stream of consciousness style that broke new ground in the first half of the century. His novels are lush and have been at times banned for their realistic portrayal of everyday vulgarity. Besides all that, he looks way better in an eye patch than most people can even dream of.
So, I'll continue plowing my way through what may be Joyce's masterpiece. I'll be taking my time with this one. Last summer I spread out AS Byatt's The Children's Book over the course of my vacation, coming back to it through the weeks. This summer it will be Ulysses that is my long term reading commitment. Some books are meant to be read in one sitting or over a few days, some need to be slowly and gradually digested while you have little snacks of other books in between. Now you all have greater understanding of why my blog is called "Book Eater."
And, if you love Joyce, you might want to check out his letters to Nora which are available online. Prepare to see a new side of Joyce, one that might repulse you a little. Or a lot.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Great Book Swap 2012

I'm having trouble finding a few books I need for my Oxford reading list so I have a proposition for my lovely friends of the blogosphere. Let's swap! I have quite a few books (I'm sort of a book hoarder). Here are the books I'm looking for:
-Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf
-An Imaginary Life by David Malouf
-Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
-Time's Arrow by Martin Amis

My only requirements are that the book be in decent condition and be in English!
You can let me know what kind of books you like and I'll see what I have. If I don't have a book you want I could always trade you some of my homemade soap instead.
Or, instead of a swap we can do a sort of "book chain." When I finish the book, I'll pass it on to the next reader who wants it.
So, any takers? You can leave a comment or email me at

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

When a group of retirement age Brits find that their plans for the golden years have been interrupted by finances, they all end up in India at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful. The hotel is run by Sonny, the youngest in his family, he's desperate to live to the success of his older brothers as well as convince his mother to let him marry his sweetheart, Sunaina. During their stay at the hotel, each of the retirees learns something about themselves and discovers whether or not India is really for them.

The cast of this film is fantastic, in fact it was the main draw of the film for me. Veteran actors and actresses Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Celia Imrie, and Penelope Wilton lead the cast. Each have their own separate, but intersecting story lines. Overall, the film balances these stories fairly well, giving each actor time to shine. Maggie Smith was a definite highlight in her role as a former nanny who needs a hip replacement. Her journey overcoming her prejudices through a friendship with an untouchable woman who works at the hotel is compelling and funny. Unfortunately we never see much screen time between Smith and Dench. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionare manages to hold his own with a cast of stage and screen legends as the sometimes self-effacing Sonny.
It was a charming, affable British comedy. Part of the problem was that it was a little too wrapped up in its own humorous charm. The plots were largely predictable, coming to satisfying, but in no way challenging, endings. In a few instances they get very close to hitting on some meaty substance, but don't delve too deeply into it in spite of some promising themes. For a lazy summer afternoon, it's a perfect film to enjoy with your family. There are plenty of funny moments that stay classy for the most part. There's no extreme raunchiness or vulgarity, just the occasional naughty euphemism perhaps. It is witty and the cast has great chemistry with each other.
I would recommend it for those that love British comedies with lots of heart.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

On the eve of her ninth birthday Rose samples the homemade lemon cake her mother has made and she is overwhelmed. Within the pale yellow slice and chocolate icing, there lurks Rose's mother's sadness and longing. From then on, Rose's sensitivity to the feelings within food only grows. We follow her into her twenties and watch how her special ability can hurt. Rose explores her relationship with her family: her distant father with a phobia of hospitals, her emotional mother, and her sullen older brother.

This book had so much potential. I was primed to fall madly in love with it. Like the beautiful Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, it set itself in a realm of magical realism. Magical realism is grounded in the real world, but accepts the possibility of the fantastic in daily life- that the things we feel can manifest themselves tangibly.
The first few chapters were like a sweet little dance, drawing you in, flirting with you. The book had an engaging premise and Bender has a good grasp of language, but she failed to bring in the necessary third element: plot follow-through. The story felt half finished, unresolved. It fizzled out with an anti-climax. There were some other fantastic elements introduced besides Rose's ability, such as a plot line regarding her brother and his mysterious disappearances. Ultimately this fell flat and became disorienting. I thought the discovery of her grandfather's similar ability felt like a sloppy quick fix to her relationship with her father.
As the book drew to a close and a promising romantic plot was abandoned, Rose is finally pushed onto a path with some possibility, but we never have any resolution to her story. There is an attempt to embrace her special skill (which makes normal eating almost impossible to sustain), but the ending feels like an afterthought in many ways.
What's good about this book? The beautiful writing and descriptions. What's not so good? The lack of plot movement and unresolved ending. I would attempt the author again because I think she has a strong voice that I enjoy, and hopefully better develops her story in other books.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Define "Work"

I couldn't take a "proper job" this summer because I'm leaving in July for foreign shores. Instead I've been spending time working on my writing. I've been editing existing work, drafting new ideas, getting articles together for magazines, etc.
Still, many of my friends and family are of the opinion I'm not doing anything. I guess working as a writer looks a little different than working does for most people. Just because I didn't pull a nine to five shift today doesn't mean I've been wasting my time. He's a guide to how people can tell when writers are working.
-If I am grumbling while sorting through a pile of pages, especially with post-its and highlighters at hand: I am working.
-If I am tapping away at my laptop keyboard, occasionally taking an agonizing pause: I am working.
-If I am browsing agent and publisher websites, jotting notes and book-marking pages: I am working.
-If I am reading reference books or even novels (especially from the genre I'm currently writing in): I am working.
-If I'm just sitting on the porch in the dark, in the rain, listening to depressing or bizarre indie music: I am probably working.
-If I'm staring into the steam rising from my coffee cup: I am probably working.
-If I'm talking to that weird old wino standing at the bar: I am working.
-If I'm watching people in public place, catching snatches of their conversations: I am working.
-If I went ambling in the woods for an hour: I was working.
-If I'm watching television: Okay, I'm not working.

I think that in most creative fields, everything you do is working in some ways. Some days you go out and get inspiration from unexpected sources. Other days you have to toil through edits and queries. It is a different kind of work than many day jobs. In some ways it's harder because you don't get paid for all the hours you put in, at least not until much later when someone publishes something you wrote.
Starting next summer I won't have the luxury of dedicating so much time to my writing anymore. I'll have to be looking for something with a steadier paycheck. I just hope that whatever it is, it allows me to be creative.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Writing Life

I'm on summer break at the moment. Right now I'm scoping out new locations to write in, cheap and cozy are preferable, and a tolerant staff who'll let me nurse a green tea for an hour while I scribble are an absolute necessity. Right now I'm figuring out what to do with my novel.
There are certain moments in my draft that I think were just to get me to the next plot point. With limited time to work with I didn't have the leisure to fully unpack and sort through more difficult plot conundrums. With my outline fairly complete, I knew where I had to get to, so in some cases I just hurried up and got there. Now that I have some time to look back over the piece as a whole I know where there are weak spots and where I need to work on the plot.
I also had a brain burst the other day about the structure of the novel. I would actually love to incorporate some of the sketches I've been making for the prequel into the story. However, I wonder if that would unnecessarily complicate the book. Part of me thinks it would really add something to it and perhaps even make the focus more on the relationship between the characters which is my intent. If instead of just hearing vaguely about how the two met, we saw it. We saw the people they were before they met and then we can see the difference they've made in each other.
I'd like to try it. I'm still waiting to hear back from my professor about her thoughts on my manuscript. Part of me is terrified that she is tactfully working out a way to tell me it's not very good. Mostly though I'm just a little impatient. I never share unedited work, so I'm very curious to know what she thinks about the book and what she'll think about my new ideas.
For now I'm planting in the garden and trying to do some work on new stories. A magazine feature I wrote will be in a magazine the end of this month, so some money will also be coming my way. That is a blessed relief: my account has been cleared out to pay for my England trip so I'm almost entirely without cash.
Now I'm starting on my reading list for Oxford and daydreaming about European travel. Daydreams are an inexpensive luxury that make life much more bearable.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sherlock in America

Finally, finally, Sherlock series two has landed in the US. Last week "A Scandal in Belgravia" premiered. I joined in on the PBS Twitter party under the hashtag #SherlockPBS. Yes, I have a Twitter. I know. It's a very efficient was to get news feeds from the NY Times and Washington Post. I'll just stop defending that now...
You can join me tonight for the US showing of "The Hounds of Baskerville" at 9 pm. I'll be tweeting along @TeaCupsSaucers.
This is my Sherlock series 2 master-post. Here are where you can find my reviews from January:
Scandal in Belgravia
Hounds of Baskerville
The Reichenbach Fall

Review: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie, now semi-retired, returns in Kate Atkinson's latest literary mystery. This is the fourth book featuring Brodie and the only one not yet adapted for the screen by the BBC.

To be honest, it was missing some of the pith and zest of the earlier books. Her books have been (in my opinion) increasing in quality. The third Jackson Brodie novel, When Will There be Good News, was by far my favorite. It was surprisingly Jackson-lite, but featured such fully realized beautifully strung together characters that it didn't matter. Jackson was merely part of the ensemble. This novel more heavily featured Jackson Brodie, but he shared the narrative fairly equally with Tracy, a retired cop, and Tilly an elderly actress. Atkinson strings their stories together through moments of shared experience and strange similarity in their lives. On the same life changing afternoon, Tracy finds herself buying a child from a prostitute she encountered when she was still a police officer, and Jackson takes a dog from an abusive brute of a man. Atkinson uses snatches of poetry, old rhymes and cliches to draw her story's themes to the front. She will repeat several times throughout the story the fact that "no good deed goes unpunished" and also draws one back to the old rhyme "for the want of a nail".
Though these seem to be a significant commentary on how the story will turn out, it actually feels rather anti-climactic by the end. The dog and the child, while changing Tracy and Jackson's course, are incidental to the overall plot. In the mid-seventies Tracy and her beat partner Barry found a prostitute murdered in an apartment. Her four year old child had been locked in there with her for almost three weeks. The murder was pushed to the back burner by Tracy's superiors and never solved.
Jackson is hired by a woman named Hope to find out about her birth parents. She was adopted as a little girl and then taken to New Zealand, never knowing about her past. When it seems as though Hope's adoption never legally took place, Jackson begins an investigation that becomes more dangerous than he anticipated. These two seemingly separate stories intertwine in disturbing ways.
Overall, I was a little disappointed in this novel. There were a few moments that were very strong in terms of their suspense and there are one or two surprising little twists that are elegant in their simplicity. It still wasn't as strong as the earlier Jackson Brodie novels. The character of Tilly was interesting and intriguing, but it felt like she was in the wrong novel. She didn't quite belong and it was a bit of stretch to make her connect to the overall story in the end. The ending wasn't completely satisfying. There were still a few unanswered questions that seemed like they were going to be highly significant, but fade out into nothing.
I'm an Atkinson junkie, I actually just picked up one of her earlier novels Emotionally Weird last week, but I did find this novel to be a little less satisfying. It's still worth the read for a Jackson Brodie fix, but not a luminous or as neatly plotted as her previous work. I still greatly admire her style and am not ashamed to say that she is a major inspiration to me as a young writer dancing around the edges of the crime genre. I hope she comes back to Jackson Brodie (and brings back Louise!) in a future book. This isn't  the way I want him to go out. I think there is a better ending for Brodie and I hope it's on its way soon.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Coming to an End and a Beginning

I'm officially done with classes. All that is left is one final and I am free for the summer. Oxford is less than three months away. I have to book my flight (almost immediately), get a new suitcase, and start working my way through the reading list they sent me. I'm not going to lie, I've been using my forthcoming trip to justify marathoning episodes of Inspector Lewis. Hey, it's set in Oxford and I believe much of it is filmed there.
I also tried a European style beer with a higher alcohol content the other night and ended up with the worst heartburn of my life. I'm am not fit for pub crawls apparently. I'm fine on wine and American beer, but not European beer. Alas. At least there is little chance of my becoming a drunken wastrel ambling about England and neglecting my studies. There was never much chance of that though. Many of my friends couldn't seem to understand why I was going abroad over the summer to actually study. ("You're actually planning to spend your time in classes?")
Last week I surrendered my manuscript to my advisor. Already I'm thinking of the million little and not so little things I need to change about it once it's back in my hands. Before I turned it in I gave it a once over for major mistakes and fixed my chapter numbers (they got a little wonky along the way). Now I'm thinking back over that reading and simply analyzing how my story works out, trying to put myself in the reader's point of view. I actually feel embarassed by one plot device now that I've thought about it. It needs to go and be replace by something that uses my character's brains more than her feminine wiles.
Ugh, I wrote it under the influence of insomnia and deadlines, that is my only defense. I feel like she comes off as too manipulative and calculating, but also too confident and experienced in her dealings with the opposite sex. It's just all wrong. I hope my Professor isn't totally put off by it.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Musical Inspiration

So I have finished my novel, or at least this draft of it. Or at least I'm done tinkering with it... for now. Or really, I'm just stopping because I have to turn it in Tuesday. Well, you get the picture. I think it's at a pretty good place. To celebrate, I've compiled a playlist which I will share with all of you.
Basically it's comprised of songs that I find inspirational Maybe the lyrics suit a character or scene or the sound is just atmospheric. Maybe I could see it in the soundtrack of the future series my books will obviously be turned into by a collaboration of HBO and the BBC. Right. Enjoy.

Get a playlist! Standalone player Get Ringtones

Saturday, April 28, 2012

National Poetry Month: Me.

As a special for National Poetry Month, this is a poem I wrote for a class a few weeks back.
"A Tryst in the Greenery"

A single crimson droplet seeps to the surface
Trembling on the edge of my fingertip and
It is drawn into the fabric of my sweater,
Absorbed into the fine weave.
The thorny prickled bushes snatch at my hair
And entwine their arms with mine.
My cheeks are scratched,
Clawed by unseen hands.

There are flowers blooming in the dark,
Vines whithering untouched
And trees torn while still golden.
A tomato dangles on a whiskered stem
Soft orange, not yet ripe,
But the underside is blackening
Dying inside already.
And where are you?

So what do you guys think? I don't share a lot of my creative writing on here, but I rather liked this poem.

Monday, April 23, 2012

National Poetry Month: e.e. cummings

One of my favorite poems by the charming, funny, experimental and occasionally risque, e.e cummings:
"my sweet old etcetera"

aunt lucy during the recent

war could and what
is more did tell you just
what everybody was fighting

my sister

isabel created hundreds
hundreds) of socks not to
mention shirts fleaproof earwarmers

etcetera wristers etcetera, my

mother hoped that

i would die etcetera
bravely of course my father used
to become hoarse talking about how it was
a privilege and if only he
could meanwhile my

self etcetera lay quietly
in the deep mud et
cetera, of
Your smile
eyes knees and of your Etcetera)

National Poetry Month- Christina Rosetti

"An Apple Gathering" by Christina Rosetti

I plucked pink blossoms from mine apple-tree
And wore them all that evening in my hair:
Then in due season when I went to see
I found no apples there.

With dangling basket all along the grass
As I had come I went the selfsame track:
My neighbours mocked me while they saw me pass
So empty-handed back.

Lilian and Lilias smiled in trudging by,
Their heaped-up basket teased me like a jeer;
Sweet-voiced they sang beneath the sunset sky,
Their mother's home was near. 
Plump Gertrude passed me with her basket full,
A stronger hand than hers helped it along;
A voice talked with her through the shadows cool
More sweet to me than song.

Ah Willie, Willie, was my love less worth
Than apples with their green leaves piled above?
I counted rosiest apples on the earth
Of far less worth than love.

So once it was with me you stooped to talk
Laughing and listening in this very lane:
To think that by this way we used to walk
We shall not walk again!

I let me neighbours pass me, ones and twos
And groups; the latest said the night grew chill,
And hastened: but I loitered, while the dews
Fell fast I loitered still.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

National Poetry Month: Emily Dickinson

"Because I could not stop for death" by Emily Dickinson, innovator with the em-dash.

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Friday, April 20, 2012

National Poetry Month: John McCrea

This is one of my father's favorite poems. It was written by John McCrea while he fought during World War I. He didn't live to see the end of the confict.
"In Flanders Feild"

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
I'll be doing more poetry postings soon! Requests are welcome. I'm on a bit of a British Modernist kick right now, I'm taking a class on that era.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

National Poetry Month: Dylan Thomas

"The force that through the green fuse drive the flower"

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

Please remember to read poetry this month (and every month). Support local open mic nights and check out

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

"The circus arrives without warning."
So begins one of the biggest fiction hits of last year. The reader is then invited into the intoxicating world of Le Cirque des Rêves. The circus only opens at nightfall. Everything is painted in black and white, tents are not only places to watch the contortionist and the illusionist, but some tents are like whole other worlds. Step into a garden of ice or wander through a maze of clouds. Behind the circus lurks a historic battle between two magicians as they pit their students against each other on the stage of the circus.
I think that readers who were disappointed by this novel expected it to be an action-packed blockbuster, maybe in the science fiction range of the film The Prestige. No, Night Circus is a deeply layered flight of fancy. You become immersed in the circus and all the players that have become a pawn in the game. It is magical realism in the best sense. Grounded in the real world, the characters create their own encasement of whimsy.
It is a love story, but a love story with unusual stakes. Two students of magic were bound together from an early age, dancing around each other without making contact for years. When they do it becomes clear that they were too perfectly paired, too complementary. Beyond those that live and work within the circus there are those that follow it, feel its tug, the reveurs.
Though not perfect, Night Circus makes for a stunning debut novel. Morgenstern takes time to layer her story with the lives of her characters and the intersections they make. The atmosphere is so rich though, and so cleverly imagined, it will make you want to run away to the circus.