Tiny Review: Catherynne Valente

I’ve been reading a lot lately.  I set a goal for myself to devour 120 books this year, 10 books per month, and I’ve been keeping solidly on track.  I’m even a little bit ahead.  

Among these readings have been quite a fair bit of work by Catherynne Valente.  A friend recommended Palimpsest to me perhaps a year, year and a half ago, and since reading it in May, I’ve tried to inhale Valente’s entire body of work.  This is no mean task.

I’ve also deeply approached Le Guin’s Steering the Craft for the first time, moving beyond the beginning exercises to come to a better technical understanding of my craft.

These two things go hand in hand, I think.   Laying side by side notions from Steering the Craft, especially on the topic of verb tense and my general disdain of “purple prose” I began thinking on why I found Catherynne Valente’s Palimpsest and Six Gun Snow White so damned compelling. Valente’s prose is rich like a dessert, but her subject matter begs for it; she’s working with dreams and their peculiar juxtapositions, she’s working with myth and fairytale. Valente goes from easy past to present tense in Six Gun Snow White, and these are tricks Le Guin warns writers of.  They are deep water.  They are difficult to pull off.  And yet, coming from Valente’s pen, none of it feels distancing or awkward to me.  I think it’s because of the fairytale nature of the story, I think it is because instead of functioning like a passive filter between the reader and the story, it makes the reader aware of the third person voice narrating it, the engaging present tense of a story told around a campfire.  It suggests a narrator, a narrator that has characteristics the reader can discern based on cadence and word choice.

 I find Valente diabolically good, with a steady hand for prose that would be just terribly wrong in any other context. She has an ability to make angular words, sharp and jangly phonemes, fall right into place.  She has an ear for the rhythm of sentences that makes me-the-poetry-reader quiver in delight. I think that’s another thing with “purple prose”: most people using it seem tone-deaf to me, breaking cadences to get in a particularly ponderous bit of language, instead of sneaking them in when the rhythms ask nicely.  Valente seems to know those rhythms well, and her prose joins the dance.

So, if you’re looking to pick up something to read, I’d point you at these.  I honestly can’t think of better right now.

A Cautionary Tale

Unpacking books is simultaneously the most dangerous and most space-effiecient task one can engage in after a move.  If you’re anything like me, most of your possessions are books.  There are boxes upon boxes of them in my living room, in the back bedroom now dubbed “the study,” in all the other bedrooms, and a few that I’m reading right there on the bathroom counter.  Enshelving them all is top priority.

So I sat down today and sliced into one of the boxes.  Dangerous though this task is, I managed not to cut myself.  Instead, I removed the top layer of books, and began sorting titles.  There was my collection of Transmetropolitan, followed by some anthropology text books, and a book of Margaret Atwood’s poetry.  I’d been feeling a little deprived of poetry, so I cracked it open and read a few.  An hour later, I returned to my sorting only to find my copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales.  i had wanted to write a piece about his quite obvious belief in children’s purity and goodness, which I find bothersome, so I reread “The Little Mermaid.”  After an hour and a half of that, I unearthed a bunch of books I’d been holding aside for a research project of mine, about tabletop gaming, identity, world design, and audience— they were collections of essays and research— anthropological, sociological, and literary takes— on gaming as a cultural act.  I was going to blog about this stuff anyway, so why not get started on the research?
Four hours later, I was still lolling on the floor, books strewn about me, and the box only half empty.  Consider yourselves warned.

Love and Library Shelves

The library is under construction. There are barriers set up in every direction, turning the open layout into a mouse-maze, with a reward greater than most that I know: books.

Everyone knows what a book hound I am. I make no secret of it. I take full advantage of inter-library loans, World Cat, borrowing from research libraries. Access. Academia. A merry-go-round of graphic novels and craft books, novels I’ve waiting years to read. But Broward’s Main Library blows me away.

Years ago, I’d come here, took out books on my boyfriend’s card, children’s books in French. Today, I have my own card, and the stacks seem vaster than the public libraries I’ve known in New York. I fell in love with the libraries of New York, paging through copies of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, lolling through older editions of Tolkien. Here? There are floors and floors and just as many spines to run my fingers along.

This, and everywhere ants. Not insects, but workers… construction, hard hats: ants. The fountains are silent and the escalators are stopped. I am in the bowels of a beast rebuilding itself, scaffolding enfolding terraces, cranes still as wading birds rising high into the sky. The shelves have been shuffled in order to allow the workers passage.

I like the feeling of incompleteness this creates. I like the sense of movement and renewal. I like that the open floor plan with seven landings to look over allows me to see it all in progress; five foot cubicle dividers can’t hide the bustle and shift when I’m peering down from two floors up.

I can’t wait until it’s finished. I never want it to be complete.

Breathing Words

I took it for granted, all of it. I own every issue of Poetry Magazine from 1981 to 2008, skip a few and smatter in some 2010. I would lazy-handedly pull them from shelf or bin, whisper them open to a random page and read, then read again aloud. I own chapbooks and volumes thick and thin of Vénus Khoury Ghata, Margaret Atwood, Jacques Prévert. I have years of the Georgia Review, and a few of The New England Review/Breadloaf Quarterly from the 80’s. A few issues of Ploughshares. Not a few issues of Crazyhorse. Rattle. But these are lists, and though laid out lovingly, they mean nothing.

No, I will tell you this, because this means something: I would, lazy-lipped, drink words and roll my tongue over sharp diatribes laid out in three lines, and I, wounded, would reel for the next three stanzas, blood dribbling from my chin. I would curl around quiet moments overlaid with alliteration and a sense of loss like a cat in a sun puddle, soaking in the sound of these words.

These poems? They were air. They were water, food. I never go a day without reading one. But they are not with me. They are packed away in North Miami. I am dancing through Broward County. They are like artwork in a museum and I can’t afford an entry ticket.

Today, I am gnawing off my arm. Today, I am searching for publicly available poems. Prose can only take you so far. The rest is a leap of faith into verse. Today, I am dragging my tongue over internet pages, craving paper copies of poems by Kathleen Graber.

Poems are a need. I need them. I need them. I breathe them. I took them for granted, took space for granted, book space, open, delicious shelves, and rows of poems like fresh peaches to savor. I am starving, now. Will trade food for poems. Speak them in my ear. I will give you the last of my heart.

As Close to Reading Aloud as Distance Allows

I was asleep when you texted me, but when I rolled over and saw that it was you, I smiled.

“Oh they used to argue over times, many corporate driver years lost to it: homeowners, red-faced and sweaty with their own lies, stinking of Old Spice

“and job-related stress, standing in their glowing yellow doorways brandishing their Seikos and waving at the clock over the kitchen sink, I swear, can’t

“you guys tell time?”

I paused over the three messages, arrived all at once. “That is gorgeous,” I replied, trying to recall why it was so familiar.

“Neal Stephenson,” you replied.

Wait… I still couldn’t place it. “Which novel?”

“Snow Crash,” you said.

“I’m re-reading.

“You should, too.”

And so I crept from my bed to my bookshelf, let my fingers hover over the titles, searching it out, and there is was, between The People of the Sea by David Thomson and Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House, yellow spine cracked and wrinkled. All of Sumer came tumbling back, neurolinguistic hacking, burbclaves and loglo and you texting me passage after passage.

I curled up with book and phone, cradling them both like a child’s stuffed toy, reading the screen and hearing your voice speaking into my inner ear the cyberpunk myth cycle. And I dove through the text, swimming through random pages, led by the invention of your voice. Every word had your intonation, and I could see your mouth forming the words, you enunciating as you do while singing a song.

“Vitaly owns half a carton of Lucky Strikes, an electric guitar, and a hangover.”

I fell asleep, listening to the ghost of your voice, my copy of Snow Crash clutched teddy-bear style. I’d worry about folded pages come daylight. That night, the bedtime story was enough.

Lit Bit: A Short Reading List for Writers

In my years of writing, I’ve run into a lot of books on the topic of writing, how to improve, how to structure your writing, on the nuts and bolts of the craft.  Not all of them have been useful.  In fact, most of them have been awful.  But people like giving advice.

There have been a few I’ve read that have been of great use to me.  My copies are battered and finger smudged from use.  Now, I don’t claim to be a diva of taste, nor the end-all, be-all of literary know how, but for those of you who hare a passion for writing, I wanted to share the three books which have helped me more than anything else to improve my deeply and understand it more deeply.

On writing in general, I have found Natalie Goldberg‘s Writing Down the Bones to be one of the best books I’ve read on the topic.  Goldberg is personal, honest, and engaging.  Most of all, she is human, and her words about words have given me direction when I didn’t yet know how to pull in and focus.

On the narrative art, the writing of prose, Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Steering the Craft has been one of the best collections of exercises meant to hone the techniques of writing, and bring together all the possibilities of written and spoken language.  Le Guin is a true master, and her well-balanced sentences have long held me captivated, begging me to read them aloud.  Her sense of play is apparent throughout the book.  For anyone who wants to better their prose, this book is invaluable.

For poetry, I hold a text book, of all things, in highest regard.  Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, by John Frederick Nims and David Mason, which ought to be subtitled “The Mechanic’s Guide to Poetry,” is one of the clearest most concise books on the subject.  It’s a delicious read, filled with practicality, and its breadth of covered technique satisfying.

Lit Bit: Little Lit Lists

There is a tiny part of me that likes lists. Maybe it’s not so tiny a part of me. Maybe it’s a part of me that is a crutch I lean on on those days when I don’t have caffeine— and that’s a lot of days lately. Lists help. They help a lot. Without them… I don’t think I could function. I’d wander off into distraction-land, and never come back. Big, full round lists are most helpful. I can procrastinate my heart out and still get a metric ass-ton finished. You could say it’s ADHD. You’d actually be correct.

In the past, I’ve had a penchant for lists of books. What I am currently reading (usually five or six titles), what I have read (oh dear, thousands…), and what I will soon be reading (usually in the form of a stack in the corner— that’s a kind of list, right?). That worked as a way of organizing my readings, they created my pace. Finish one, start two more, and go. But I wanted a record of what I’d read.

The internet, marvel though it is, did not change this. I tried for a while to track my habits with social media. I really did. I used LivingSocial’s Visual Bookshelf while it lasted. For a while, I was logging in to GoodReads. But all of these fell by the wayside in favor of my fickleness, “Ooo, that title looks shiny and it’s been sitting on my shelf a while.” Or better yet, wandering aimlessly through the bookstore or library saying, “No, no, no, yes, yes, no, yes…” and nabbing a new stack to bring home. It seemed like too much effort to list all the titles I was reading at once. And then I wanted to go back and list everything I’d ever read. EVERYTHING I’D EVER READ. Fickle and picky.

Needless to say, it’s a nigh impossible task. Where to start? Le Guin? John Varley? How about that weird book about the ghost in the computer I’d read as a kid? There were so many titles I’d forgotten… like those books about the boy and the alien teacher. And what about the ones I’d only half read? Or the ones I stuck through and wish I hadn’t read? Like Shanara? What about all the McCaffrey and Piers Anthony that I read only to realize that I didn’t really like it? Or the Meredith Ann Pierce or Louise Cooper that was so much better than I gave it credit for at the time? And that’s not even touching upon the graphic novels…

So what’s a list-loving gal to do? My book consumption lies in disarray, having plowed through Gene Wolf’s Nightside the Long Sun, being in the midst of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Break, Blow, Burn. I still have a few more of Nin Andrew’s prose poems to lick from the page, and no way to organize all this.

And that is why I turn to you, oh readers. Please. Suggest something to me. Anything. I’m desperate. I’ll list the reasons…

Lit Bit: A Recommendation

While most folk are celebrating with their families, or going out for Chinese food, I am cleaning and reading. I’m finishing up a short story collection by Ursula K. Le Guin. I know, I know, big surprise that I’m reading Le Guin. Her prose is always a favorite of mine.

But I wanted to pipe up today: if you ever have a chance, read The Compass Rose. It’s one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. Of late, I’ve read a lot of short stories. I’ve been licking screen prose from Daily Science Fiction, popping Bradbury like candy, and rolling in Stanislaw Lem. I keep returning to Le Guin, though. There is something about the way she handles human relationships that makes almost every story achingly beautiful.

The Compass Rose is arranged not just around the cardinal directions, but up and down: Zenith and Nadir. There are six sections, then, and the tales themselves relate in theme (for instance, west for death, dying, age and endings) or direction of travel to the section in which they’re included.

Take, for instance, “Gwilan’s Harp.” It’s in the West section, and is the story of a life changed course through the breaking of a harp, it’s the tale of an ordinary woman’s life with an extraordinary gift. No great glory, no fortune to find, just a family life, and an old age. And the simple realization that “…you play the instrument you have.” There is power in this, power in the familiar, the ordinary. There is more truth in it than great imaginings or vast battles and worlds changed. Worlds change in a eye blink and at a snail’s pace. And change’s agents are so many that we are all carrying a single grain of rice to fill a storehouse. But this is Le Guin’s art.

Or “The Author of the Acacia Seeds,” which was also printed in Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Visitations. Movement as text. Humans are not alone on this rock. It leads off the collection, and takes the breath away.

I am leafing through “Sur” now, an all women’s expedition to the Antarctic. As the volume closes, the old familiar feeling of sadness at a book’s end is creeping up on me. Anthony Burgess awaits me when I’m finished, and A Clockwork Orange is not nearly so inviting a text.

If you have something of a winter break, a few spare days for New Years set aside to read, pick up The Compass Rose. It’s worth it. Perhaps it will leave you haunted. If it does, you’re welcome.

Lit Bit Late

I don’t read enough anymore. I hate saying that. It’s like something uncomfortably acidic on my tongue. Rather, I don’t read enough novels. I keep plugging away at One Hundred Years of Solitude and making little headway, meanwhile I’ve been popping short fiction like candy. Daily Science Fiction has helped with that, giving me a short story per day. On the days that no fiction arrives in my inbox, I find myself picking up Lem and Le Guin, Bradbury and Chopin. That last just to add variety. One can’t live by science fiction alone.

I keep thinking about an article I’d read some years ago in The Atlantic about information overload, snippet distribution of information, and human attention span. There’s been a great deal of debate on the topic. While I at times agree with Carr (I think Benedict Andersen’s thesis bears on this— how maps, clocks, and newspapers helped allow for the rise of nationalistic thinking, and I know how even a technology such as writing itself can impact the way people think), that something may just well be happening to the way people read, I hadn’t noticed this much in my life, until now. Is my fiction consumption pattern altered by the digital age?

The best I can guess is probably, and likely not in the ways that Carr posits. I wonder if my experience really matches Carr’s thesis, or if I’ve just gotten busier. Despite my cramped schedule, I leave vast empty swathes in my day just to collect thoughts, arrange words. I will sit with a single poem for half an hour wringing every sweet drop of juxtaposition from it. These are not the habits of someone who has fundamentally altered their brain to better exist in a world of clips and headlines hanging textless. In fact, I blog about old ideas. I lay out long essays. Is this the mark of someone who can’t focus on a single task?

Maybe. When my gmail is open and facebook is up and my cell phone is on, these are hard to do. Every now and again, I shut them off, log out, and read a short story. I like a good long short story. It has cohesion and impact. Anything up to 7,000 words. Sometimes longer. Just what it needs to be.

Am I becoming more distractable? I posted my Lit Bit late. You tell me.

But for Fear, I Would Be Lost

A friend has loaned me a book. Common enough occurrence. I was skeptical from the start, but she told me it was good: Conversations with God. I accepted it because I think it’s often prudent to withhold judgment on things I’ve not tried. I took the book home. Actually opening it to begin reading took quite a long time. I am glad I did, though.

No, I do not like the book at all–its didacticism tired me and the simplistic formula of continually repeating, “no, I don’t follow you,” or “say that again?” was tiresome. Then in the first twenty pages it hit upon something, a big something, a powerful something. Neale Donald Walsch postulates that everything that motivates human kind stems from one of two emotions and only one. These two that he puts forth are love and fear. He holds them up as opposites, a duality, poles not on a continuum, but absolutes, for the so-called “Sponsoring Thought” of any emotion can have root in only one of these. He says that “fear-based love” is rooted in a lie, and that fear “contracts, closes down, draws in, runs, hides, hoards harms.” he says of love that it “expands, opens up, sends out, stays, reveals, shares, heals.” Opposites in every way. Is it all rooted in love or fear? Does he mean for me to believe that righteous indignation has its root in love, and anger over abandonment in fear? Anger has but two flavors? Or is it that there is no such thing as anger at all and one only experiences it as an outgrowth of fear be cause it’s a “negative” emotion?

What then, I wonder, is awe? In this model there is no space for the sheer terror, smallness, wonderment and joy that is wrapped up in this sensation. There is no room in this schematic to encompass all the strange whorls of emotion, everything from dread to hope that can be swept up in standing before a thing so much greater, older, wiser, deeper, stranger than oneself. What was it I felt before the great Triceratops in the hall of the Smithsonian, I tiny and trembling, shaken to the core and crying like a child, voices echoing through my very bones? These experiences had root in neither fear nor love. They were of awe. And I would say hope has no place in his diagram, nor curiosity, glee, selfishness, a sense of ease, anger, or peace. These are all emotions in the human scope. We feel moved by things sometimes for which we have no name. To call them all fear or love narrows the breadth and glory of joys, shames us for our pain and misery, blames the victim of poverty for their own aching. No.

And of fear alone? Fear can, yes, make one shrink, draw inward and hide. Fear also shows us where the boundaries are. Fear can dare us to test them, fear can keep us safe. And while I do not agree with everything she has written, Starhawk does say this well: “where there’s fear, there’s power.” In the roiling pit of fear lies the well of transformation.

As for the book? Though I am not enjoying it for its own sake, I will continue to read. I have learned the hard way not to discount lessons wrapped in contrary packages. This lesson learned, however, is one which must often be repeated.