Putting the Awe Back in Awesome

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Like a lot of great books I’ve read, I first encountered Pär Lagerkvist’s The Sibyl as part of an English course, in this case a second-year course on myth and symbol. As a young woman from a small, Christian community in a staid, mid-sized city, this course and this book started opening a lot discussion for me about faith, God, and religious experiences. I’ve read it two or three times before, but I reread it for my 50 Book Challenge because the characters’ encounters with god feel so unlike anything I’ve understood or experienced but, as the sibyl remarks, “I think I recognize that god.”

The Sibyl tells the story of two people: first, the story of a man who is cursed by Jesus for preventing him from resting against his house while carrying the cross to Golgotha, commonly known as the Wandering Jew; and second, the main arc of the novel, the story of the former oracle of Delphi, now living a disgraced and outcast life in the hills outside of the city.

Screenshot 2016-01-15 13.38.25My reading of this book then and now isn’t about good or bad. Reading this story is about taking part in something larger than yourself, something not completely understandable, something just meant to be experienced, incomprehensible, greater-than, awesome – in its truest meaning.

Awesome is not just the easy descriptor given to everything from that burger you had for lunch to the new Star Wars movie. Awesome means to inspire awe. It is means, if I may reference the OED, immediate and active fear, dread or terror.

Perhaps this is not the first way most Christians want to think of God, but throughout this past Christmas season, as I read the story of Christ’s birth to my children and attended church services from different denominations, fear was brought up a lot, though rarely honed in on.

The children’s Bible that my family reads pulls together in one Christmas story: the angel’s visit to Mary to tell her of God’s plan, Joseph’s doubts about their marriage and the subsequent dream of an angelic visit, as well as the traditional stable, shepherds with angel chorus, wise men and baby Jesus. Three times we read that the angels said, “Do not be afraid.”

Do not be afraid. I mean beyond the startling experience of seeing an angel, commonly depicted as a glowing, floating figure that only Fox Mulder could believe in, why would meeting an angel be frightening? But three times we read do not be afraid. And this is a creature only next to God. Not God, but a servant of God. If an angel can inspire fear, how much more so could an encounter with God?

Which brings me back to The Sibyl. The man has come to ask the sibyl what his future holds now that he has been condemned to wander for eternity and to find no rest. Her response is her own life story: her childhood; her experience with god as the temple’s pythia; her great love of a neighbour, his death, and her pregnancy and resulting violent expulsion from the city. As they discuss their stories, the sibyl keeps coming back to the idea that an encounter with god is not simple experience.

He is not as we are and we can never understand him. He is incomprehensible, inscrutable. He is god. And so far as I comprehend it he is both evil and good, both light and darkness, both meaningless and full of a meaning which we can never perceive, yet never cease to puzzle over. A riddle which is intended not to be solved but to exist. To exist for us always. To trouble us always.

Her life, tied so closely to the experience of god, was lived in opposites. Life in the temple lifted her up but held her separate. She experienced ecstasy and terror by god’s hand. As a result, she does not deny that she hates god for the destruction in her life but also says she owes god her every happiness. The space created in this story to both doubt and believe, to feel anger and peace, to be part of and separate from God continues to fascinate me. The awe of encountering something incomprehensible, to be touched by God, bound up in him, has a certain pleasure that is irrationally appealing, as the pythia’s story reveals.

In the end, the man leaves her side believing the answer he is seeking may only be found in his endless wandering. The answer cannot be spoken but only lived.

I read and reread books like The Sybil to find more clues to the riddle that is God, to find the edges of my own understanding and belief. I accept that I will not find an answer to my questions or doubts, not for myself or for any others who come and question faith and the existence of God, but in reading and questioning and discussing, I live and search in hope of a truly awesome encounter with the incomprehensible I AM.

Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do

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Here we are heading in to late July and I haven’t posted in a long, long while. I’ve written things. I’ve been reading. But I couldn’t make myself click publish.

I couldn’t get excited about what I was writing. All I saw were the ways in which it wasn’t matching up to the expectations I have for myself and what I want to be.

Mostly I was feeling like a failure because recently I’ve had a string of professional rejections. A lot of no thank yous were filling up my email and filling up my mind.

I had a crisis of faith: faith in myself, faith in my writing, faith in my life. I had already been feeling the need for change. Things haven’t been fitting together as comfortably as usual. My kids are getting older. My interests are changing. My needs and ambitions are shifting.

And as I tried to discover new experiences and opportunities, I was getting shutdown. I began to feel stuck. Like who I am and what I am capable of isn’t good enough for where I want to go and what I would like to be doing.

I felt stupid. Incompetent. Useless.

And so I haven’t published anything. I’ve avoided looking at my blog and pretended that it didn’t matter to me. I binge watched tv and read too many Buzzfeed quizzes (I would be sorted into Ravenclaw and I should go to Paris on my next vacation; these are things I needed to know).

But then I got really busy with my day job. Like seven-days-a-week busy, with nights and evenings, too. And I thought being bad at something I enjoy is better than being good at something that just pays the bills. And am I really that bad or do I just need to make room for improvement?

So what does that mean for re: read pages?

That means that re: read pages is going to be a place where I work on my voice. I’m going to write more broadly or at least with fewer restrictions on what I may post and when. If I read something that makes me pause, I’m going to blog about it. If I have an idea for something other than my novel, I’m going to blog about it. And if that means I post things less than perfect, or scholarly, or deep, so be it.

I love reading and I love writing. And if the requirement for me getting more professional opportunities is spending more time reading and writing – that is nothing to complain about.

#tbt book nerd style

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Last week in celebration of International Children’s Book Day, I discussed The Seventh Princess, which is the first book I remember buying for myself, check that post out here. I enjoyed my book nostalgia so much that I’ve decided to make #tbt book nerd style a regular feature on re: read pages.

This week as part of National Poetry Month, I want to bring to your attention the first collection of poems that really made an impact on me. I had read individual poems that made an immediate impact, perhaps by the usual suspects – Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est – but the collection Execution Poems by George Elliott Clarke lingered with me in a way I hadn’t previously experienced.

The collection, which won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 2001, addresses the real story of Clarke’s cousins, two black men who were convicted of murder and hanged in New Brunswick in 1949. Just the idea that they were hanged so recently, which seems archaic, stuck with me, but the poems also use the experience of George and Rufus Hamilton to a reflect on the effects of systemic racism and cyclical poverty – issues that still need thoughtful contemplation.

Yesterday, as I reread these poems, one line stood out from the first page and I will leave you with those words:

My black face must preface murder for you.

Be Our Guest

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Today, I am guest blogging on Girl of 1000 Wonders. Thanks, Charlie, for letting me be a part of your book discussion!

So go check out my post, Another Side to the Story, on the novel Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen. As is obvious from the title, it tells the story of the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet, starting on the day that Juliet is born. Leveen does a great job of creating a history and rounded character for Shakespeare’s bawdy nurse.

And be sure to check back here at re: read pages later this week for an update on my writing plans and my thoughts on Jo Baker’s Longbourn.

BJL

Cut. It. Out.

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Last week I began a month-long discussion about description/exposition in fiction writing with a post of examples from the greats.

This week, I want to take a closer look at making each word count, cutting the fluff and the filler. The adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all” could easily apply to my editing strategy. If the words don’t improve or add to my story then they don’t need to be there.

Listen to Uncle Joey and Cut. It. Out.

For me, the extra words creep in as unnecessary adjectives and flowery language or direct exposition of the characters’ feelings. Reading it back to myself I feel like I am channeling my 14-year-old protagonist a little too closely when writing – she plays older than her age, thinks everyone either loves her or hates her, and, oh, the feels. There is too much wild emotion and it leads to wild writing.

No purpose, no plot, no book.

At the risk of completely embarrassing myself, I am going to share some of the lines that recently got hacked from my book.

 

Rosaline reached out and grasped the paper in his hand.

Um, in order to take something in your hand you must move your arm. No one is going to lift it, place an object in your hand and close your fingers for you. Delete!

 

Now seeing the last gift she had planned for Catalina gave her comfort; her loss was great because their love was great.

If the reader can’t tell how much Catalina means to Rosaline by the time she dies, than I need to do a lot more work on the beginning of this novel. This falls under the show don’t tell philosophy of writing. Delete!

 

“I know why you want to stay close to me,” Rosaline said, taking a step closer to him. She knew her head fit neatly below his chin. She could step three feet closer and lean against him and he would put his arm around her. “You like being close to me.”

Marco’s eyes glimmered and a faint smirk crossed his face before his low, rumbling laughter took over.

WTF. I love me some romance novels (see here, here and here) but, regardless of the fact that I changed the relationship between Rosaline and Marco, this is no YA love story. Ugh. Delete!

 

In an attempt to fill my head and my pages with better writing, I’ve started reading more about description. I am currently reading The Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty. While the book uses poetry for examples, I’ve found the focus on how much can be inferred with only a few lines and well placed words to be illuminating. I’m going to keep up my secondary reading on description for the rest of the month as well. So if you have any books to recommend, let me know in the comments.

Can you see what I’m saying?

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I’m a chatty person. I love a good, long conversation. I have pre-conversations with people to work out how I think a talk will turn out, often working myself up in the process or laughing at how I think they will respond. What I’m saying is that dialog, external or interior, is not a problem for me.

What I do struggle with is the stuff in between. How characters physically interact, how they move within a scene and from place to place, how the characters take in what they are seeing and feeling, how to share what they are thinking without just making it a interior monologue. You know, basically the bulk of the novel. Often, as I discovered on a recent editing pass (read about that here), my writing descends into cliché and melodrama when I have to write an extended scene with no thought or speech. Clearly, this is an area I need to work on.

So the plan for the month of October is to focus on the art of description.

What better way to start than to look at some examples:

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

In a review of this novel, John Updike (no slouch himself) had this to say about Atwood’s writing, “…scarcely a sentence of her quick, dry yet avid prose fails to do useful work, adding to a picture that becomes enormous.”

Updike’s words handily sum up what I think great writing should contain. Every word counts to creating that bigger picture and meaning of a novel. The Blind Assassin was the first Atwood book I fell in love with at first reading.

Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

This novel is in my top 10 all-time favourite books. I find something new every time I read it.

Roland looked at Maud. The pale, pale hair in fine braids was wound round and round her head, startling white in the light that took the colour out of things and only caught gleams and glancings. She looked almost shockingly naked…. He wanted to loosen the tightness and let the hair go. He felt a kind of sympathetic pain on his own skull-skin.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The novel had me from the start and when I read the following description all I could think was, as Liz Lemon would say, “I want to go to there.”

The man called Isaac nodded and invited us in. A blue-tinted gloom obscured the sinuous contours of a marble staircase and a gallery of frescoes people with angels and fabulous creatures. We followed our host through a palatial corridor and arrived at a sprawling round hall, a virtual basilica of shadows spiraling up under a high glass dome, its dimness pierced by shafts of light that stabbed from above. A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry. I looked at my father, stunned. He smiled at me and winked.

“Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel.”

 

 

Interview: Caitlin Moran on the Working Class, Masturbation, and Writing a Novel

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An interview with the excellent Caitlin Moran about her new novel.

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Jessica Gross | Longreads | Sept. 25, 2014 | 13 minutes (3,300 words)

Caitlin Moran has worked as a journalist, critic, and essayist in the U.K. for over two decades, since she was 16. In her 2011 memoir/manifesto, How to Be a Woman, she argued women should keep their vaginas hairy, said she has no regret over her own abortion, and advocated for the term “strident feminist.” Moran brings the same gallivanting, taboo-crushing spirit to her debut novel, How to Build a Girl, which follows Johanna Morrigan, a working class teenager, as she navigates her way toward adulthood. Morrigan shares a few traits with Moran, from her background and career path to her obsession with music and masturbation.

* * *

As I read How to Build a Girl, I pictured you laughing uproariously to yourself as you were writing it. But in the acknowledgments, you say…

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This is how you do it

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I intended to do a close read of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant for re: read pages but instead the novel became a pleasure read that I devoured in almost one sitting.

The Birth of Venus is a historical fiction set in Renaissance Florence, and it grabbed me from the first paragraph. I couldn’t help but put my pen and notepad down, squish down into my chair and turn page after page. The opening lines open the story wide and already showcase Dunant’s gift for seamlessly meshing research and writing:

No one had seen her naked until her death. It was a rule of the order that the Sisters should not look on human flesh, neither their own nor anyone else’s. A considerable amount of thought had gone into drafting of this observance.

So much is said in just the first three sentences. We know that a nun has died. We know one of the rules under which she lived and the importance placed on hiding away the female form – the implication of the dangers of the flesh. And, because the rule is being pointed out, that the revealing of this nun’s flesh will yield more than just a naked body.

The opening paragraph goes on to outline the rules surrounding this observance. While Dunant’s understanding of the time and place in which the story takes place is evident, the information never feels like it is being dropped in, like a side note in the middle of lecture, but folds into the plot and drives the narrative.

I didn’t take any notes, as I usually do while reading for re: read pages. I was just enjoying myself too much to want to break away from the story, something that hadn’t happened in a long time.

The choices Dunant makes throughout the story just build strength on strength, with the historical setting supporting, influencing and revealing her characters. For example, the protagonist, Alessandra Cecchi, a teenager, is the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. The novel is set in Florence just as the Sumptuary Laws (rules limiting conspicuous consumption, such as fur lined gowns or jewel encrusted hair pins) were being blasted from the pulpit by Girolamo Savonarola, a real historical figure who enthralled the city and enraged the pope. So the very thing upon which her family has earned its fortune, the selling of luxury, is being questioned by the highest leader in the community.

As Florence is in upheaval around her, so is Alessandra’s life. She is interested in art and wishes to become an artist but also knows her duty to her family as a daughter of a marriageable age. Her response and her intelligence never take her out of her age or time, but still give her an autonomy that is uniquely hers, especially when compared to the life of her older sister.

The novel was a pleasure from start to finish, and I will definitely be rereading this novel. Dunant’s talent is admirable, and the final pages sums up how I feel about my writing in comparison to the greatness of her own.

Alessandra is reflecting on the art she has created through the years, including painting the chapel walls in the convent in which she resides, and concludes that it is “sadly mediocre” but does not feel the lesser for the results:

And if that sounds like a statement of failure from an old woman at the end of her life, then you must believe me when I tell you it is absolutely not.

Because if you were to put it [the chapel] with all the others…then you would see it for what it is: a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others.

And such is the sound that the chorus made together, that to have been a part of it at all was enough for me.

When love speaks

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I don’t remember my wedding vows. My husband and I wrote them together, and we stumbled through them together on our wedding day – nine years ago today. But unless I managed to find a working cassette player and listened to the recording again, I would not be able to tell you what they included. Something about love and respect, I’m sure.

But what I do remember is the reading we selected for the ceremony, which, thanks to Rufus Wainwright, we also danced to for our first dance.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29

When in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,

I all alone beweep my outcast state,

And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,

And look upon myself and curse my fate,

Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,

Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,

Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,

With what I most enjoy contented least.

Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

These words have held me up, held us up, through the best and worst moments. They remind me when I feel worthless that someone values me more than anything else in the world. They remind him that I love him as he is not as he expected to be to others. They remind us that just because we own less than some people doesn’t mean we have less.

These words bring us back to the moment we first said I love you, to the moment we said I do, and to each moment when we chose to stay side by side.

Happy anniversary, Sweet Pea.

It’s not me, it’s you

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After completing a cull of my personal library several months ago, I had a laugh over the results of the reorganization as highly regarded literature sat beside beach-read romance (see my post and photo here).

As a result I’ve decided to start a new reading series called Why Haven’t I Read This Yet? and finally read all those books that I’ve meant to read but just never found the time (some of those books may or may not be from courses I’ve already completed, cough cough).

So welcome to my inaugural post in the series!

As this book inspired the series idea, I decided to start with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.

In the small world of coincidences, Márquez passed away this April, at the age of 87, just as I finished reading his widely adored novel.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, first published in 1967 in Spanish, tells the story of seven generations of the Buendía family. This novel has been in my to-read pile for years as one of those novels I thought I should read in order to consider myself well read. I had started reading it a couple of times before but never finished it.

I felt a pressure to read (and enjoy) this book. I could never get a good rhythm when reading it, which I chalked up to bad timing and not a bad book. A lot of people list One Hundred Years of Solitude as their favourite book or an influential or important book in their lives (Bill Clinton, Oprah, Emma Thompson). It is credited as one of the reasons Márquez won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. And I can not think of higher praise than that from William Kennedy of the New York Times Book Review, who said One Hundred Years of Solitude should be “required reading for the entire human race.” With so much acclaim, I figured I just needed to make the time to really take in the voice of the novel and I, too, would be swept away.

Having finally finished it, I think I now know why I never made it through before: I don’t like magical realism, which is my polite way of saying, I didn’t like this book.

Magical realism is a genre of literature in which magical experiences occur in a natural or realistic setting. For example, in One Hundred Years, considered one of the seminal examples of the genre, the characters live impossibly long lives. Which doesn’t sound so bad, but it is one of a thousand tiny and large instances in which the everyday becomes imbued with the fantastic throughout the novel, which makes the pace of the story is as long as the lives of the protagonists – For. Ever.

Admittedly, I do not have any detailed understanding of the history of Latin America, which largely informs the novel’s plot. Perhaps if I did I would have anticipated more and felt the narrative pull more strongly.

The blips of interest for me came with the truly inexplicable moments, such as the blood of a Buendía winding its way through the town and the family home so that the matriarch, Úrsula, could discover his death. Or the ascension of Remedios the Beauty in to the sky instead of meeting a natural death.

One point I did appreciate relates to the massacre of thousands of striking workers that is covered up by the company that enacted the violence. Only José Arcadio Segundo, who witnesses the removal of the bodies and is subsequently driven mad by the knowledge of their deaths, believes the massacre occurred. The rest of the town accepts the official story of the strikers returning to their families but accuse José Arcadio Segundo of dreaming or misunderstanding the experience. In the midst of other fantastical events, the terrible truth is the one thing that is unbelievable for the characters, which makes the event all the more terrifying.

Despite my feelings about this novel, I will try another book from this genre just to see if I need to develop a reading palette for magical realism. But I will say this: while Márquez was writing One Hundred Years he had to sell his car and get food and rent on credit in order to finish it.

I don’t plan on selling items off while I write my novel, but the belief in his own work is something I envy. There is no room for self-doubt if you’re putting yourself in debt to get it done.

I could use some of that magic.