Am reading books again! And writing! And feeling pretty good about it

414ZRJ35BZL._SX297_BO1,204,203,200_Until recently, the last print (and by print I mean text, as opposed to audio) book I finished was Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, a month ago, on September 3rd. Since then I’ve done little reading. I finished an audio book. I read some comics. But no real “sit down and read this book” reading. What did I do instead?

Well I watched the entirety of House of Lies. Saw a season of Mr Robot and a season of Bojack Horseman. And I played a hell of a lot of Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale 2 on the computer (at this point I’m in the final dungeon in Icewind Dale 2). Also, I’d like to note that both of these games are a little ill-designed. At a certain point, in both of them, I ditched the party and decided to just solo the games using a fighter / mage (in IWD) and a sorcerer / paladin (in IWD2) and the games both became significantly easier! In fact they got so easy that where once getting through them was a tactical challenge, it’d now become something of a chore, and I quit.

Anyway, before I quit reading, I had put a book on hold at the library: Balzac’s A Murky Affair, which is one of his few novels to take place during the Napoleonic era. It’s about a group of nobles who get involved in a plot to kill Napoleon.

And I recently found myself reading it, for some reason, and I was actually engaged by it. I have no idea why. I’m not sure it’s a particularly good book. But there’s something so interesting about France’s political history: its abrupt changes and reversals in fortune, and the way that supporters of different regimes had to coexist uneasily. His social history is very good, even as his characters always seem a little wrong…a little far-fetched. For instance in this book there’s a peasant, Michu, who’s so devoted to these nobles and goes to such lengths to help them. In the end he even dies for him. It doesn’t quite ring true.

But I was happy to finish a book.

I’m also happy to be making some progress again with my writing. For the last month I’ve been attempting to rewrite my middle-grade novel, Everyone Hates You, and I’ve been making less than zero progress. I simply couldn’t find a way to write the book that preserved my vision while also fixing its flaws.

And then somehow something broke open for me, and I had an initial scene. The book is recognizably the same, but it’s also completely different. The relationships are different. The motivations are different. The pacing is different. It feels really good to have something flow again.

But at the same time I don’t know if it’s any good. Most of the time, on most projects, I’m simply unable to write: my mind will just kick up its heels and say, “No, there is something wrong with this, and you cannot continue.” But when I’m able to write, it doesn’t mean that what I produce is necessarily any good.

We will see. We will see…

A story doesn’t really need more than atmosphere and detail

productimage-picture-the-human-comedy-352Now that I’ve gone through Edith Wharton and Henry James, I decided to venture into the Continent, so I started reading this Balzac short story collection. What I appreciate about Balzac is that he’s one of the first authors to really pay attention to the specifics of things. For instance, in the very first short story, the narrator gets invited to the wedding of the cousin of the woman who cleans his apartment, and he notes that the wedding was on the second floor of a wine distributor’s warehouse, and that it consisted of about 80 people, and then he noted the decorations and the entertainment. That is really interesting stuff, but most authors of that period wouldn’t tell you about it. They’d just be like…it was a wedding.

Balzac, famously, thought it was his mission to capture the entirety of contemporary society, so there are entire stories here whose purpose is just to capture some sort of phenomena. For instance, the second story is just an account of an evening at a Paris salon during the Restoration era. One attendee tells a story about how he became disillusioned when his first love cheated on him. Another goes into an extended inquisition on the nature of modern womanhood. A third riffs about the character of Napoleon. And a fourth tells a dark, Gothic tale. And I loved it! For the first time I felt like I really understood what the appeal of a salon was. It was to be daring, and to shock your contemporaries, but not by arguing with them–the point is to be both elevated and light at the same time.

And I was impressed. There was story, of course. And there was theme and character. But more than anything there was atmosphere and detail. And I feel like that by itself is a pretty worthwhile reason to write a story.

Books I Read In 2012 That Were Surprisingly Good, Part One

Okay guys, I had to restrict this list to books that I haven’t already blogged about. It was the only way to reduce it to manageable size. So these are not the most “surprisingly good” books I’ve read this year. They’re simply the most “surprisingly good” books that I haven’t already written about. I chose ten books, so hopefully I’ll post about five today and five tomorrow.

 

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe — Okay, yeah, the goodness of this book should not have surprised me. It’s one of the classics of English literature. It gets taught in school and everything. But somehow, I’d categorized this Nigerian village novel alongside the Indian village novel and, let me tell you, the latter can often be a pretty mopey bunch of books: they’re just sooo full of tragedy. And I guess TFA is full of tragedy too, but the thing that no one tells you is that it’s also hilarious. At its core, this is a comedic novel. It’s more Dickens than it is Faulkner. And it’s legitimately laugh out loud funny. At times, it almost seemed like a fantasy novel, since it’s a novel that takes seriously the beliefs of its characters. They come together and enact their rituals and propitiate their gods, and there is never that little sneer that so often pervades colonialist novels–the sneer that says, “Oh, they enacted their silly little traditions”. It was one of the best novels that I read this year (also surprising was its length–you can finish this one in an afternoon!)

A Provincial Celebrity In Paris by Honore De Balzac — I really like Emile Zola, who was very influenced by Balzac, but I never gave much thought to HB. What I like in Zola is the social critique, but I felt like maybe there wasn’t so much of that in Balzac. This is the second Balzac novel I’d read, and I’d already realized that Balzac has a very antiquated style: everything is a lecture. Either the characters are lecturing you or the narrator is lecturing you. For god’s sake, he’ll go on for ten pages about how they went about making paper from wood-pulp and rags. But I really enjoyed this novel. It’s a send-up of literary society in 1830s Paris. You see newspapermen and poets and novelists and playwrights and society people all fighting against each other and using their tools in quite unsavory ways in order to make or destroy reputations. There was just something about it that was very fun.

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The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman — I read this one after a recommendation from a friend. It’s basically a collection of literary essays by a comparative literature graduate student (I think she was a PhD candidate at Stanford) where she makes fun of the silliness of academia and of her own life in particular. The first essay, by far the best, is about organizing an Isaac Babel conference where the author’s legitimate and illegitimate daughters come in and snipe at each other. Meanwhile, the essay weaves in all these facts about Babel’s life and about Batuman’s personal life. It’s a melange of awesomeness. The longest essay is an extended description of a summer studying in Samarkand (the capital of Uzbekistan), which is a destination apparently chosen by Batuman just because there was money available. I just…I don’t know…there’s really no way to describe this book. It shouldn’t work, but it does. If you love Russian literature and/or hijinks, then you will love this book.

pyongyang-guy-delisle-paperback-cover-artPyongyang: A Journey In North Korea by Guy DeLisle — Okay, so, like everyone else with an internet connection, I’m kind of obsessed with North Korea. It’s just the weirdest place on Earth. It combines the messianism of Nazi Germany with the advanced bureacratization of the Soviet Union and leavens in some of the decadence of the late Roman Empire. Well, I mean, let’s just take this graphic novel for example. A French animation company has outsourced some of its drawing to North Korea. Because of some obscure government initiative, there’s a working animation studio in a country where like half the people are starving to death. This graphic novel was written by a French animator who was sent to help the North Korean studio get off the ground. It’s such a strange, lonely comic. The narrator walks around in a solitary bubble. He’s accompanied everywhere by political officers. He lives on an entire island that’s been set aside solely to entertain and house foreigners. He glimpses North Korean life through windows and knows that there are a million secrets he’ll never uncover (like where all the elderly and disabled people went, or whether the North Koreans really do love their leader). It was a beautiful, startling, and darkly humorous book.

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Mill On The Floss by George Eliot — I read two Eliot books this year: Mill On The Floss and Middlemarch. I loved them both, but I was surprised by how much more I liked this one than Middlemarch. I felt like Middlemarch was somehow…incomplete or unrealized. It started to hint at all these themes but it sometimes failed to get there in the end. Whereas Mill On The Floss felt perfect. It’s basically an autobiographical novel about a young girl from an impoverished home who’s trying to find some use for her abilities. Eventually, she falls into disgrace and is rejected by her family. Of course it’s a Victorian novel so roughly a zillion things are happening at once, and there’s some hella funny stuff, too, like the slow downfall of the girl’s family because her father is simply unable to keep himself from suing people, but mostly it’s this very lonely book, about a girl who’s trying to grow up and to realize her talents. It also has a completely insane ending that, weirdly, kind of works.