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Friday, August 31, 2007

So you want to be a wizard?

Recommended: So You Want to Be a Wizard? (Diane Duane)

I'd been meaning to re-read this one for a long time; part of my blogging quietness has been due to my catching up on this book, and its seven (!) sequels. (One thing I like about young adult fiction: it's short. I'm really tired of 800 page fantasy novel tomes. No, I'm not looking at you, Ms. Rowling. But if the shoe fits...)

Mrs. Troll of course made fun of me as I was working through the Young Wizard series. "Secretly you want to be a wizard, don't you," she laughs. Ahem. I think that would be true of anyone who enjoyed fantasy literature at a young age.

And in the end, I cannot deny that the title alone sells me on this book. But So You Want to Be a Wizard is certainly very fun. Nita and Kit are slightly geeky, young teenagers who get picked on by the other kids. Naturally they each stumble across a book titled.... well, you know the title.

The two become fast friends, but both are devoted to the higher calling of wizardry: to take the fight to the Lone Power whenever and wherever possible. I love that the real "hook" in the plot is Nina's stubborn desire to get her favourite pen back. But getting her pen back means making friends with an errant white hole (one of the weirder characters in the series!), and surviving an alternate, malevolent Manhattan filled with packs of bloodthirsty cabs and murderous elevators.

The book is fun, kind of crazy (is it fantasy? Is it science-fiction? Who can tell?), good young adult literature. It deals with the difficulties of the early teenage years (how important a pen could seem to the youth!), but doesn't venture too far into the serious. So You Want to Be a Wizard is followed by a string of other books: (currently) Deep Wizardry, High Wizardry, A Wizard Abroad, The Wizard's Dilemma, A Wizard Alone, Wizard's Holiday, and Wizards at War.

Phew. Some are better than others (Rule Number One: no author is ceaselessly brilliant.), but frankly I found the last novel to be worth the wait. If you enjoy So You Want to Be a Wizard, I think you'll enjoy the rest, too.

Ms. Duane has written quite a few novels. In addition to the Young Wizards series, there are a few parallel novels regarding the feline wizards (I would predict these are not for me), the Middle Kingdoms sequence (about which I know nothing), a slew of StarTrek novels, and StarDrive novels (science-fiction of some sort? can anyone enlighten me here?).

So You Want to Be a Wizard is a light read - fun and charming. I'm sure you'll find it very memorable.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Deep Reading Part 2 - Techniques of Deep Reading

This post is part two of the series, Get More from your Book - Secrets to Deep Reading. In this post, I describe some basic techniques for deep reading. These techniques will help you get more out of the books you read, including themes and ideas you may have missed otherwise.

The techniques:

Pay Attention, Read for Detail

If you skim, you will miss details. If you watch TV while you're reading, you will miss details. Details are the building blocks for foreshadowing, and evidence for hidden plot elements and ideas. If you miss the details, it will be much harder to discover these extras that the author has hidden for you. It's like rushing past all of the Easter Eggs hidden in Aunt Jeannie's yard just to get to Easter Dinner. Sure, all that food is wonderful, but why not pick up some extra Easter candy on your way?

The second part of this technique is to mentally note odd or deliberate details, or details that are not necessary. If a detail stands out, there's probably a reason for it. If a character makes an odd, seemingly throwaway comment, there's probably a reason for it. File them away in the back of your head, because one might be the thread that helps you unravel the hidden puzzle of the story.

Think about the Story

While you are on the bus or standing in line at the grocery store, think about the story you have read. Play around with the clues and strange outliers, and try to puzzle out what they could mean. Try to think about themes, motivations, similarities, and inconsistencies. If there are any unsolved little mysteries, try to puzzle out their answers.

For instance, say that you know that a character is an orphan. Perhaps the author provided clues to the identities of the character's parents. Or if the character met a mysterious stranger on the road late one night, maybe a throwaway comment by another character near the beginning of the book can shed some light on that encounter.

In Part Three, I will go into further detail about what you should look for when you are standing around, thinking.

Talk about the Story

This is the single most important tool for getting more out of your book. Talk to others who have read the book. Point out the clues and the weird things you have noticed, and any questions or theories you have. Others will have noticed clues that you have missed, and vice versa. You may also be able to support or discount theories that others have developed with the clues you have noticed. By working together, you pool your knowledge, and get new perspectives. And besides, it's fun to chat about a good book!

When I was in high school, I would often discuss stories with my cousins Chad and Todd. The books we read were not very sophisticated, and included such series as the Death Gate Cycle, the Dragonlance books, the Wheel of Time, and the Dark Elf books (this is what happens when you find new fantasy at hobby shops and KMart). Since we were often in the middle of a series, waiting for the next book to come out, we would discuss our theories about what was going to happen in the future books. This was a type of what I'm talking about. However, there was less to discover through a deep reading in these books than in some others.

Reread

When you know the end, and you have advance knowledge about details later in the book, your mind is primed to catch details in the beginning that the author dropped for you. You may have picked up on some of these things on the first read through, but chances are good that you still missed some. Foreshadowing will become obvious, and you will come to better understand the characters, their knowledge, and their motivations.

Coming Up!

In part three of this series, I will discuss some specific details, patterns, and clues you should watch for.

Part 3: Details, Patterns, Tropes
Part 4: Community Spirit

Monday, August 27, 2007

Get More from Your Book - Secrets to Deep Reading

What is Deep Reading?

Deep reading is a collection of techniques that help you see themes, patterns, and secrets hidden in the novels you read.

But isn't that the same thing as literary analysis?

It's similar to literary analysis, but literary analysis tends to focus on one theme or subject. Also, literary analysis tends to have a goal, to make an argument about a piece of writing. Deep reading is done for yourself, not for a class, and not to make a point. By reading deeply, you explore a book and discover its secrets.

Deep reading can help you perform literary analysis, but it is not literary analysis.

Why Do I Care?

Deep reading can turn a book into a brain puzzle like sudoku, a cryptic crossword, or an anagram puzzle. It's like a mystery novel, except discovering the mystery is a mystery itself, or there are multiple hidden mysteries, all in one book. Some of these are placed by the author intentionally, and some are not.

Figuring out these mysteries is rewarding, and that's why we do it. It's that flash of insight, that, "Oh, I get it!" moment you get when Perry Mason or Adrian Monk says to the cops, "Here's how it happened." Or even better, it's when you cleverly figure out what happened *before* Mr. Mason or Mr. Monk.

Except there is no Perry Mason or Adrian Monk. You are the detective.

Is it Difficult?

Deep reading is no more difficult than reading, and anyone can do it. The worse that can happen is that you read a book just like you normally do. However, if you use the techniques of deep reading, you will begin to notice more details, make more connections, and discover more of the secrets hidden in the books you read, whether the author intended you to find them or not.

Coming Up!

This article is the first in a series. Coming up in the next few days:

Part 2: The Techniques of Deep Reading
Part 3: Details, Patterns, Tropes
Part 4: Community Spirit

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Five Writers Who Ruined My Life

Five writers ruined my life.

I am a writer. I write to communicate, to inspire, and to satisfy my own ego. I want to write great literature. Heck, I want to write the best literature. And I want you to read it. But I have a problem.

My Problem
Yesterday, I developed a case of writer's block, which is unusual for me. I had just finished reading The Midnight Disease, by Alice Flaherty, in which she discusses writer's block and its causes. Later, when I sat down to my computer, I found that I could no longer write. I had writer's block.

I immediately realized that my problem was caused by five people.

The Five Writers

Alice Flaherty
She made me aware of the problem. In her book, The Midnight Disease, she examines the brain for the neurological reasons behind creativity, the drive to write, and writer's block. She also looks at external factors for creative blocks, and notes that reading something great, such as an author that you admire, can be a source of block. This revelation planted the seed in my head for my own block.

J. R. R. Tolkien
He drew me into the world of literature. As a child, the forbidding, ominous black book, graven with the red ring and eye of Sauron, sat on the big kids' shelf just out of reach. I got it anyway, and like the One Ring remade Frodo, that book remade me into a fantasy reader, and eventually a writer. He built an amazing world, and that's something I envy. If my worlds could only share the life and music of his, then maybe I could write on a level with him. However, compared to his worlds, mine seem mundane and derivative.

Gene Wolfe
Wolfe is the worst of them. As I walk by my bookshelf, I notice his books most, for he is the pinnacle of art and style I can never reach. His writing is layered, meaningful, full of wonderful ideas, and infused with marvelous style. My plots feel flat and uninteresting in comparison. When I try to mimic him, they become obscure and awkward. His talent is that of a wizard, and I have yet to fully understand his magic.

Frederick Douglass
He is a pinnacle of personal development, of true heroism, and a great writer to boot. The nonfiction I have written pales in comparison to The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. It all seems so trite and easy compared to his life. He faced such immense challenges, and rose so high. And his depiction of his life was so brilliant. I look at his powerful, beautiful book, and how it affected me, and I am awed.

Myself
I am ultimately to blame for not being a better writer. I am lazy, I am unfocused, I procrastinate. If I cannot write, how can I satisfy my drive to communicate, and to move others? I can claim writer's block, and complain about the others, but I share the blame.

I Need to Fix This
The desire to write is strong, but apathy is insidious. Life provides convenient escapes. I can avoid writing by cleaning house, or trolling my favorite internet news sites. And right when I want to write, right when inspiration hits, that is when I'm in the car, at work, buying groceries, or about to fall asleep. And the inspiration isn't enough. I get it, and I take it back to my computer, and it says to me, "Okay this is a good idea. Now execute." And then I think, "Will this be half as good as what's out there, or even a tenth as good as what Wolfe or Douglass or Tolkien would have written?" I need to kill the inevitable, "No" in my brain, stab it, cut it out. But how?

I Must Move Forward
Write, even if I raise an abomination from my words. Ignore the "No." Push. Throw it to the dogs so they can read it, and then lament later, after they have all died from the poison in my words. Their criticisms may bite, but without the risk, what is there? I can't just give up....

Flaws in My Vision
Looking back, I am too pessimistic. Reading those writers first inspired me. If I step back, I see that they still inspire me. I should revere them, and I do.... But that doesn't break the block.

Conclusion is a Wrecking Ball
The wrecking ball is the answer - I remember it from The Midnight Disease.... I will tear down Tolkien, Wolfe, and Douglass, and demolish their works. With a literary iron fist, I will punch through their fragile, flawed walls of plot, crushing archetypical bricks and word-mortar. I will sift through the rubble of their chapters, vivisect their characters, and tear their sentences with my teeth. Then, I will see that they are not perfect, that they are not the be-all-end-alls that I thought they were, and that there is reason still to write. And then I can stop saying that they ruined my life.

Even if that vision is just a delusion, its salve is worth being delusional. Even if I invent flaws in their work that don't actually exist, I can still smash one barrier to my writing. And when I do, I will ride that wrecking ball to freedom.


Then I will thank Alice for telling me how to cure my writer's block.

Then I will thank John for inspiring me to read and write.

Then I will thank Gene for convincing me to aspire to his amazing skill.

Then I will thank Fred for showing me that it's not just your story, but how you write about it that makes it great.

And then I will thank myself for finally doing it, for finally finishing something that someone else will read.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

California Blogging - Harry Potter and the Man from the Future

Well, I'm back from my California vacation. Here are the highlights:

Why do Wizards Depend on Muggles for Anything?

So, I preordered the newest Harry Potter from Amazon.com, and had it shipped to my vacation spot in California. Unfortunately, it arrived two weeks after release day! That didn't bother me, though, because I was reading other things at the time. I found the box it came in entertaining, so I took a picture.

No danger of that!

I also found it humorous that wizards would use muggles to deliver their package! I want my book on time, and I want it delivered by owl! So, I guess it's the muggle post office's fault for the book delay. Rowling's wizard employees should know by now that they can't depend on normal people for anything.

The Great Potter Debate

My sister-in-law got married on our vacation, and I had the pleasure to visit with the groom's two sisters, Sylvia and Deanna, at the rehearsal dinner. Both are very charming women, and I enjoy talking to them when I get the chance. However, I was surprised when they suddenly started arguing at the dinner table. About what? Harry Potter.

I don't know how it started, but I distinctly remember Sylvia saying, "Why do you still read that stuff? Rowling is a terrible writer!"

That got my attention. Deanna replied, "She is not! Will you stop trashing her!? I happen to like her stories."

Sylvia said, "When she learns to write, I'll stop trashing her."

I jumped in. "I don't think that's completely fair," I said. "She's not that bad."

Sylvia said, "Well, she can sometimes write a good plot. But other than that," she shook her head. Sylvia's an English teacher, and she knows her literature.

"Well, there's something to be said for a fun read," I said.

Deanna said, "Yes! If she can get me to read it, then that's an accomplishment." Deanna is a fashion designer, and does not read much.

"Still," Sylvia said to me, "Have you read her first book? Horrible."

"Yes," I said. "And I agree that she's not the best writer in the world. However, I have to give her some credit. She won the Hugo Award, you know."

Sylvia said, "Oh."

I think she thought I didn't really agree with her as much as I said I did, so I tried to clarify. "Now, don't get me wrong. I thought they screwed up royally at the time, but still, it counts for something."

She nodded at this.

"And Harry Potter has good characters, who live in an enchanting world," said Deanna.

"And that's why I like it, too. It doesn't have to be great literature. It's fun to read, and that makes it worthwhile."

Maybe I came off as a diplomat, and maybe I am one. But I think there's a place for fun writing, even if it isn't great literature, or even if the style sometimes makes you cringe. And based on Harry Potter sales, millions of readers agree.

Kung Fu Fighting

Baby Gruff received a kimono from our friends in Mountain View. Their daughter also has one, and when the two babies were garbed in their japanese-styled outfits, they felt compelled to fight, kung-fu style, with accompanying music and all. I didn't understand the urge, but had the presence of mind to take a few pictures (You can clearly see that the babies are recovering from their martial arts injuries in this one). I didn't even think a kimono was an appropriate martial arts uniform.

The Man from the Future

While we were in San Francisco, we saw a time traveler, who was not very sophisticated in the art of disguise. We knew he was from the future, because he was riding a Segway, a device that obviously runs on futuristic technology (was it also his time machine? We'll never know). However, he was riding it around like a madman wearing a cowboy hat and a trench coat, like some sort of combination of Neo from the Matrix and Clint Eastwood. He reminded me of these guys.

Wrapping It Up

So, that was my trip to California. Mountain View, San Francisco, and Sacramento are all wonderful places, with beautiful landscapes, interesting people, and lots of sights to see. The traffic is terrible, the weather (although nice) is kind of boring, and life out there is expensive, but overall the good outweighs the bad for me. I'm really looking forward to my next visit.

Fantasy and race

It was my friend Billy Goat who first pointed out to me the racial descriptions in The Wizard of Earthsea (a fantastic book by Ursula K. Le Guin; I will formally recommend it at some point). I must admit I'd completely overlooked the fact that the main characters were not white.

What's this? A wizards-and-dragons story populated by characters with different racial characterstics? Well, hey, great!

But I no longer can look at the covers of my copies of The Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan without cringing: the characters are depicted as white as fish bellies. Did the artist not read the books, I cry silently, to no avail. Alas, but that's how it is.

Recently I spotted a movie version in a local video store, and I was curious to see how it treated the issue of race. But I haven't seen the movie, and now won't, not after reading Ms. Le Guin's scathing commentary: "On my books, Ged with a white face is a lie, a betrayal--a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader. I think it is possible that some readers never even notice what color the people in the story are. Don't notice, don't care. Whites of course have the privilege of not caring, of being 'colorblind.' Nobody else does."

So I learn from this that the movie producers made any character of significance white. I am not surprised, and I am disappointed.

But I've thought deeper about the issue, and am wondering if I may be changing my mind in some ways. I think perhaps that both I and Ms. Le Guin missed the point.

Ms. Le Guin's Earthsea novels are drawn from a particular literary tradition, what she calls "northern" European. Sparrowhawk may be red-brown, and Vetch may be black -- but look at the culture of their characters: pure northern European. Yes, there are some minor tribal differences, but fundamentally the people living all across Earthsea are remarkably culturally homogenous.

From this perspective, I would go so far as even to partly defend the movie producers. A Wizard of Earthsea is not an ethnically-inclusive story; it's a northern European story. A white European story, regardless of how Ms. Le Guin envisioned skin colours. The producers understood the story as what it is, not as what Ms. Le Guin wishes it to be.

I think the moral here is that colour-inclusivity, while still a very good thing (!), is not ethnic inclusivity. A novel with more vision would have drawn on the histories and myths of various cultures, not just Ms. Le Guin's. Rather than subtly include colour, she could have subtly included soul. Had this been the meaning behind A Wizard of Earthsea, then certainly her ire against the producers would have been well-founded.




David Anthony Durham's post inspired a number of others, including one at Neth space.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Cottage reading: Ports of Call

Ports of Call (Jack Vance)

You know, I thought Jack Vance was one of the old-school authors. You know, from back in the day - Bradbury, Heinlein, and so on. And then I thought to myself, why don't I get something of his from the library, and bone up on some historical science-fiction.

So I read Ports of call at the Troll Family Cottage. It was entertaining - high-flown humor, perhaps. Ports of Call isn't a novel. It's a series of sketches, a farce - the main character, Myron, a uselessly foppish nephew who reminds me of Bertie Wooster (P. G. Wodehouse): "Of course I can fly your new space yacht," he assures his pompous aunt, "as long as it's got auto-pilot." So Myron and Dame Hester go for a little space tour, flitting from place to place. There's no plot, no real development of character. Every chapter is a new society, a some new friends and some new obstacles. It's got a lot of people being snotty to each other, and man do I love the vocabulary of the future!

But what really impresses me is that it was published in 1999. My jaw dropped when I saw that. The publisher has some respect for the readers (anyone who's ever run across the word etiolated is invited to leave a comment; I take my hat off for you).

If you secretly wish people spoke in Jane-Austen-like dialogue, cheer on the archness of Lady Catherine de Burgh - then, perhaps, this is the novel for you...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cottage reading

Whilst Billy Goat was blogging like mad from the Poisoning Institute (sometimes I'm glad that the Goat family and I share absolutely no common elements in our respective diets!), Mrs. Troll and I were relaxing lakeside at the cottage.

(What? Trolls need vacations, too. I just leave a tin can next the bridge, a little sign says, "Please Pay Toll Here.")

So... some Cottage Quick Takes coming up. Check back in a few days for more!

Buried Deep (Kristine Kathryn Rusch)

Easy to describe this book: science-fiction meets Kay Scarpetta. I didn't believe it could work. No way. A gritty forensic-science mystery on Mars? But it really does work. I'm even more impressed as this novel is the fourth in a series (I'm not familiar with the Retrieval Artist series and so cannot say whether the previous novels also focus on forensic anthropology).

It's an interesting premise, one that makes for good science-fiction. Mars is controlled largely by an alien species known as the Disty. The Disty.... well, the Disty don't like death. A single dead body could cause major cultural contamination. A dead body is Really Bad News. So naturally when the Disty took control of Mars, it was only after the human government swore that none of those abhorrent human burials had taken place on Mars.

And then some human construction workers find a dead woman buried under a Disty city.

Oops.

Dr. Aisha Costard volunteers to lead the forensic investigation, but her ignorance lets her step into a tangle of crime and interspecies law.

And then they find the rest of the bodies...

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Anvil of Ice

Recommended: The Anvil of Ice (Michael Scott Rohan)

Michael Scott Rohan's Winter of the World trilogy is just the kind of work I aim at recommending. It's beautiful, simply wonderful - and hardly anyone has ever read it. Oh, I suppose Mr. Rohan is hardly the most obscure author one could find, but somehow his work never gained the kind of popularity found by its literary equals.

The trilogy opens with The Anvil of Ice. Alv is a foundling, an unwanted cowherd in a little port town. His childish wishes for the destruction of his hated home seem to be answered when the Ekwesh raiders appear, their boats low on the sea. The boy is claimed by the Mastersmith travelling with these barbarians. Apparently displaying a potential for smithcraft, Alv makes the long travel to the Mastersmith's reclusive tower that clutches the mountains opposite the relentless grinding of the Ice.

His apprenticeship is long and strange, and many are the arcane secrets he learns from the magesmith. Talent Alv has, oh yes, but he must work hard to develop it. Long hours he labors at the massive forges that draw heat from the deeps of the world; long hours he painstakingly patterns his molds, and etches secret characters into his metals, and all this time he hums and chants the songs that give virtue to his works. A long and strange and perhaps lonesome apprenticeship it is, but it will not last.

Perhaps it is accident only that sends Alv fleeing from his Master before his finishes his apprenticeship. Perhaps such things can be no accident while the world slowly grows cold, and the very mountains groan under the implacable march of the beautiful and terrible Ice. But whatever starts his wanderings, Alv must learn first to forge himself anew before his skill can truly be his own.

You may need to work to acquire this book; perhaps your library owns it, or can request it. To my knowledge it is not available new from the major booksellers, but you can find it on the used book websites.

Its worthy sequels are The Forge in the Forest and The Hammer of the Sun. (Of course, Rule Number One always applies: no author is ceaselessly brilliant.) He has also written a prequel (The Castle of the Winds) that I have not read; it seems unnecessary but I look forward to reading it nonetheless.

Finally, Michael Scott Rohan's Spiral series will certainly be recommended here (making Mr. Rohan one of very few authors who deserve such a double mention); Chase the Morning is the first and best of these.

Quick take: Pan's Labyrinth

I'd been wavering back and forth on seeing this movie. The previews looked great (it's like judging books by their cover: the quality of the preview always matches that of the movie), but I'd heard that the real story was about the Spanish Civil War.

Huh? The previews clearly show a little girl in some fantasy world. Who wants to see Fantasy-Meets-Hemingway?

Well, Mrs. Troll and a friend rented Pan's Labyrinth for the evening, and I was very pleasantly surprised. A fantastic movie, with an great mix of reality and fantasy, and a story that can be read on many layers. In fact, it is possible for a movie to be a great drama, and to be a creative fantasy as well.

My only warning is this: it's a very violent movie - not for anyone with weak constitutions.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

California Blogging

I am in Sacramento, California. Mrs. Gruff, Baby Gruff, and I flew out to California about two weeks ago and hung around Mountain View with some old friends and their new baby girl until today. We've spent our time hiking through redwood forests, tiptoeing around T-Rex-and-flamingo-infested Google-land, admiring jelly-bean art, and nibbling on Cookie-bottom Sundaes.

I left out a few things, mainly all the time we were stuck in traffic listening to babies cry, our unplanned visit to the Sausalito Food Poisoning Institute, and the numerous diaper changes. I made sure to record some of the baby cries, because I know how much my mother-in-law treasures them (they make her laugh).

The Gunslinger and the Princess

I have a guilty urge to stay on topic, so I'll discuss what I've been reading out here - Steven King's The Dark Tower, Volume One: The Gunslinger, and Mister Troll's recommendation, The Princess Bride. I raced through The Gunslinger on the flight over, but didn't quite finish. After arriving, I read it out loud to Baby Gruff each morning until I finished the book. I enjoyed it, but I think the goofy philosophical mumbo-jumbo could have been too much for the boy at his age. He's only 10 weeks old, and by the end of some passages he was cross-eyed and drooling. . . but maybe that's normal. I think he enjoyed the gun fighting and cowboy-knight mythology, and every scene involving Cort. I sure did.

Next, I read The Princess Bride out loud to Baby Gruff. I think he got more out of it than I did. First of all, he has not seen the movie, so every page was a surprise to him. Secondly, he slept through most of Goldman's asides, which I felt often took away from the experience anyway. Thirdly, he wasn't left with the impression that the movie was better than the book, because he had never seen it.

Now, don't get me wrong. The book is pretty darned good, and it contains a few things that the movie does not. But if there's one thing I can say about the movie, it's that it's the best movie adaptation of a book I have seen to date. I don't think I go too far when I say that the movie successfully functions as an abridged version of Goldman's work, cutting out some of his satire and mediocre humor. All of the funniest stuff is in there, and little was cut. Where there were cuts (e.g. the Inigo and Fezzik history flashbacks), the important information was delivered well.

To Be Continued....

I'll fill you in with more California blogging as my vacation continues. Harry Potter, Neil Gaiman, and kung fu feature prominently.