Sunday Post #44: No Snow

Sunday Post
Last year I installed a plugin that makes it snow. I can enable it whenever I like, so I let it snow on my blog most of the winter because that’s usually what it’s doing here in Worcester. This winter has been sort of mild, however, and it hasn’t even been that cold with the exception of Valentine’s Day weekend. I’m turning off the snow today until next year. I’m not sure winter is really done with us because March is typically an iffy month around here, but the weather usually calms down by April.

I can’t believe I opened with the weather.

I’ve been reading up on the French Revolution for a while now. I admit to being a bit scared to take on Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety because it is over 750 pages long, but I do love Hilary Mantel, and I imagine it’s a pretty good book. Having just finished Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette this week, I dove back into Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and it’s so long and daunting that I really wish I could read it on Kindle. I find with e-books that I don’t feel quite so intimidated by long books, not to mention they’re easier to hold up when I’m reading in bed. This book is seriously not easy to read. Interesting so far, however.

My book club is reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. We meet Wednesday, and I don’t think it’s likely I’ll be finished with the book by then, but I’m going to keep at it because I am really enjoying it. I wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own, but people I respect recommended it so highly that I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. Brown is a good writer, and heart and humanity with which he imbues the subject of the book is a master class in how to write compelling narrative nonfiction.

Now seems like a good time to check in on my reading challenges, too. I’m on track to finish 55 books this year so far. I have completed nine books. I haven’t done much with a few of the challenges, so I need to get going. I have made little progress on the Reading England Challenge (which is very unusual for me, as I typically read quite a lot of books set in England—though this ninth book I mentioned a moment ago is book number one for this challenge). I have made zero progress with the Reading New England Challenge.

On the other hand, I’m doing well with both the #ShelfLove Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge. I’m showing my shelves and TBR pile some love so far. Some small progress on the Historical Fiction Challenge, but as it’s my favorite genre, I’m not worried yet. I’m sure I’ll read more.

That ninth book I mentioned before I should go ahead and write about. It’s The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I had first read it some years ago. I am not really sure how long now, so it was a re-read. I always forget how many of Wilde’s bon mots come from his writing rather than some quip he made in his travels. He’s extremely funny. Probably one of the funniest writers I’ve read. I find it so tragic the way he was treated toward the end of his life. I’m not sure he was exactly the nicest person. It’s hard to tell when someone is as sarcastic as he is exactly what they might really have been like. It’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have liked him if he’s as catty as he comes across, but since I don’t have to be tested by actually knowing the guy, I can declare I adore him absolutely. If you haven’t read any Wilde, this play is a wonderful place to start because it’s short, hilarious, and absolutely wonderful. It’s a great send-up of Victorian mores and frivolity ([rating:5/5]).

Here is hoping I can catch up a bit now that some duties at work will lighten a bit starting this week. How has your reading week been?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Authors I’d DIE to Meet

Top Ten Tuesday

“Dying” is a little extreme, but there are a lot of of writers I would love to meet.

  1. William Shakespeare: I have so many questions. First, I want to know what he thinks of the literary reputation he has. I would also love to put paid to all those anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theories once and for all (and no, don’t bother commenting on this post if you are one—I cannot be convinced). I would also like to know why he went to London and became an actor. I have a million questions!
  2. Jane Austen: I would love to have tea with her. I am really curious what she would make of her current literary status. I think she would be completely baffled—I actually had a lot of fun imagining just such a scenario. I would just love to sit and talk with her.
  3. J. K. Rowling: Her superstar status makes me more likely to meet Shakespeare in this lifetime. Well, at at any rate, her books are some of my favorites, and I would love to talk with her about the characters and find out all kinds of secrets of the HP World that never made their way into the books. I hope Pottermore will have a lot of that.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald: I want to ask him about his writing process. I have heard he was a dogged reviser. I know he helped Hemingway make [amazon_link id=”1907590250″ target=”_blank” ]The Sun Also Rises[/amazon_link] better through some astute editing. I would also like to ask him about all those folks in Paris and what it was like to write in Hollywood. I have so many questions about Gatsby, too.
  5. Oscar Wilde: I mean, he’s bound to be entertaining and hilarious, right? I would love to just chat with him. Though I liked his writing (what I’ve read, that is), I’m more interested in Wilde as a personality.
  6. Mark Twain: Ditto for Wilde, except I truly do love [amazon_link id=”B003VYBQPK” target=”_blank” ]Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[/amazon_link]. I would love to discuss what he thinks of the controversy surrounding that novel. I want to hear him go off on the new bowdlerized edition.
  7. J. R. R. Tolkien: I have a million questions about Middle Earth. I would love to hear all about how he constructed such a well-developed fantasy world. It seems like such a huge undertaking.
  8. The Brontë sisters: Yes, it’s cheating to combine them, but to be fair, I would probably have to meet all of them if I were to go visit Haworth, right? I’d love to chat with them about their writing, how they help each other and work together, and just their family story.
  9. Byron, Shelley, and Keats: I already met them for tea in a dream, so again, even though it’s cheating to include all three of them, I’d like to see if they’re at all like they were in my dream.
  10. Joseph Campbell: He has such an understanding of why we tell stories, and I would love to just listen to him talk about them. I especially want to pick his brain about Harry Potter. I have often said to students in my Hero with a Thousand Faces classes that it’s a pity Campbell died before those books were published because he would have loved them.

Booking Through Thursday: Bad Writing

Oscar Wilde Statue

In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde says, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are simply well written or badly written. That is all.” This week’s Booking Through Thursday prompt asks about good and bad books:

I’ve seen many bloggers say that what draws them to certain books or authors is good writing, and what causes them to stop reading a certain book or author is bad writing. What constitutes good writing and bad writing to you?

Personally, I don’t think this statement is true, at least not in general. I think a heck of a lot of people are willing to forgive bad writing if the plot has them turning the pages, the characters are people the reader cares about, and the reader feels some loyalty to the author. For instance, I gave Anne Rice chance after chance. I enjoyed three of the first four Vampire Chronicles. I didn’t like The Witching Hour, or, I should say, I didn’t like most of it. I didn’t like any of her subsequent books. But I kept trying long after I probably should have called “bad writing.” Actually, I am not sure I think her writing is bad. It’s a little florid in some places, but it works for her subject matter. I just didn’t care for the plotting choices she made. I also read The Da Vinci Code. I found it interesting. I turned the pages. At the end, I felt like Robert Langdon was a sort Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, as my daughter informs me male Mary Sues are called) in an Indiana Jones fanfic. More than anything else, I can forgive any number of writing sins if the characters in a story are well drawn, and the writer somehow convinces me to invest in them. I don’t think Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts is the most well-written book I’ve ever read by any stretch. In fact, in some places, it’s a little cheesy. But I liked the characters a lot, and I read the book in one sitting. Same with Twilight. I’d never call it well-written, but it definitely had me turning the pages. I’m almost ashamed to admit I saw my awkward teenage self in Bella.

I’m an English teacher, so what constitutes good and bad writing for me is kind of complicated. Subject, purpose, audience. Frankly, I have to read a lot of immature writing, and I mean no disrespect. The writing is literally not mature in tone because the authors are teenagers. It’s not a comment on their level of intelligence so much as an acknowledgment of their developmental stage. So I think as a result, my threshold for “bad writing” is probably lower than yours. I often read writing that was hastily typed the night before it was due and not proofread prior to being printed.

On the other hand, some writers have tics that prevent me from enjoying their books. Philippa Gregory’s Tudor-era characters don’t speak in anything like an approximation of period dialect. Gregory is also a fan of the stylistic comma splice. At least, I hope it’s a style choice. I can’t stand it. I like her books otherwise, but those two issues make it hard for me to concentrate on the story and enjoy it for what it is because the actual writing bothers me. But is that bad writing? I’m not so sure.

I don’t know who said it, but as a writing teacher, I quote it all the time: “Writing is never finished. It’s just due.” We could tweak it until we die. We could spend a year revising the same paragraph. We could spend an entire day, as Wilde famously did, pondering over a single comma. Bad writing, then, is hard to define because it might just be unfinished.

Good writing is a little easier. It feels like a cop out to say you know it when you see it, but I think it’s true. The language or characterization just rings so true. The words are beautiful, and the characters are your friends, and you dissolve into the story, perfectly able to imagine everything you read. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Poisonwood Bible, The Plague of Doves, and Wuthering Heights are kind of like that for me. Really, so is Harry Potter and the Judy Blume canon. And The Thorn Birds and Gone With the Wind. These books become a part of who you are. You drink them in or inhale them, and somehow they are a part of your bloodstream. And as Wilde noted, their purpose is not to convey morality. They just are, and thank God they are.

photo credit: Mark Heard