Strange & Norrell

So, I did finish my first year of seminary this Spring, but probably my most exciting accomplishment of 2017 so far has been finishing this book! Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (by Susanna Clarke), oh the journey we have had. Last summer, I checked you out from the library too optimistically close to the start of the semester. I had to renew you twice and give you back without having gotten a hundred pages in. One day, my friend sent you to me as an encouragement, and I tried starting once more during the school year, but no dice.

So, it did take me a couple of weeks, but come on the thing was 1006 pages long. It was a lot, and I wont say that I loved every minute of it because there were a lot of minutes, and I got tired of how long it was. This was mostly because I was anxious to start reading another book, which I broke down and did, vowing that it would not deter me from my purpose with the magicians.

This is a book worth reading. (I mean it! In person, I have trouble conveying enthusiasm in recommendations because either I don’t want you to see how much I love it or I don’t want you to think that it’s too hyped and feel cynical or I just am not that comfortable with you yet. But I mean it!) I’m going to say some negative things about it and some positive things about it, but don’t let the negative things fog you up.

From the outset, after every description told me it was a book about magicians and magic, I had high fantasy expectations. While there is a LOT of magic, it also hints at SO MUCH magic that we never really see up close. Sometimes I felt like Clarke was off having fun in some magical land that she would never describe for me, while I sat in England hearing talk of cool magical things but not experiencing them. Like I said, we get a lot of magic and this is a bit of a ridiculous negative, but I did repeatedly wonder when we were going to dive in beyond the tension of real-England vs. magic-stuff. I don’t know if this will make any sense or how it will sound if you haven’t read the book, but there it is.

Characters can make or break my reading. I didn’t find myself capital-I Invested in any particular character(s). This was a little disappointing. I did like most of them in general…I appreciated them all as characters, but I wanted to really love somebody, and I just didn’t. Fortunately, I did not notice this detracting from my reading in the moment; I noticed it toward the end of the book when I wasn’t sure exactly what to hope for.

I should say that I’m currently watching the mini-series the BBC made, which is on Netflix. Y’all, it is GOOD. If you already know that never in your life will you read this book, you should watch it. If you do want to or think you might want to read the book, I beg you to read it before you watch. I shouldn’t even have told you, because maybe you didn’t know it was an option and I take it back what are we talking about?

Ugh, I can’t help it. In the miniseries, I am finding that I do enjoy some of the characters (I already liked) a lot more. Maybe my imagination wasn’t going far enough with them when I was reading. Along these lines, it also makes my complaint about the role of magic seem even more ridiculous.

What I enjoyed about the characters was their authenticity. Clarke wrote some accurate human beings. Overall, I think we see more of their darkness – what the human mind/heart/will is capable of motivating in the sense of deception or selfishness or curiosity. There is goodness to be found, but it does seem a book that intends, for a while, to bring the reader to despair of the characters and the world. And that really does happen in regards to people and the world – at least it happens in my brain.

There were many clues and hints at later events that appeared in footnotes or in smooth switches to first-person narration. The narrator was a good companion. I aspire to write something so seemingly effortless. But some of the clues made me so eager or had me ready or appeared several times, and the object became less something-suspenseful and more something-long-awaited (perhaps only because I’m impatient).

Clarke’s writing mirrors its setting: the story begins in 1806 in England.

“Clearly such an opportunity as this was scarcely likely to come again; Mr Norrell determined to establish himself in London with all possible haste. ‘You must get me a house, Childermass,’ he said. ‘Get me a house that says to those that visit that magic is a respectable profession – no less than Law and a great deal more so than Medicine.’
Childermass inquired drily if Mr Norrell wished him to seek out architecture expressive of the proposition that magic was as respectable as the Church?
Mr Norrell (who knew there were such things as jokes in the world or people would not write about them in books, but who had never actually been introduced to a joke or shaken its hand) considered a while before replying at last that no, he did not think they could quite claim that.”

I don’t know what I can reasonably quote without spoiling one part or another. It’s frustrating – I know you would like it. This line stood out as a favorite:
“He had never much cared for the world and he bore its loss philosophically.”

So…think what you will about that. It made me stop and look up at the room and laugh.

I mentioned there were footnotes. Yes. The footnotes throughout were brilliant. Some went on for three or four pages, telling stories about past magicians or describing books the characters referenced – which books of course only exist in the world of Strange & Norrell.

There were real events woven into the storyline (or vice versa), and real people with real roles (one being Lord Byron). This was delightful and super clever. I believe Clarke’s non-writing work has to do with history? This was her first novel, if you can believe that. I do not envy the people who had to write 1-2 paragraph descriptions for the book cover, the back of the paperback, Amazon, etc. Where do you even focus? There’s so much. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m struggling to write about it.

As I said, I am thoroughly enjoying digesting the story in film format now. I have to keep a notebook and pen at the ready for moments when I want to exclaim at something that seems to be happening early or something that DID NOT go down that way in the book or something I like that the series does differently. Nick is watching it with me and wouldn’t be able to handle such outbursts (nor do I want to ruin everything for him). It’s a joy to talk about the intricacies and the meaning with someone else now.

It was somewhat taxing, yet I almost feel the need to turn around and read it again. I do want to read it again eventually, having full knowledge of the story at the outset. I’d like to remember side characters and other things I’m sure I’ve already forgotten.

Sorry if this post seems scattered – I think I have over-caffeinated-brain going on right now. It’s also our last week in Indianapolis, and I am thinking about the things I did and didn’t do and the fact that going back to St. Louis brings some realities to the forefront that I have been glad not to think about for a bit. I am ready, and I’m not ready.

Ok, bye.



writing about reading about writing, again

Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, was an interesting one to read directly after Stephen King’s book (On Writing). The two are so different. I’ve loved Dillard for a long time, although I have read strikingly little of all that she’s written. I wrote a long essay inspired by one of her essays for one of my favorite writing classes in college.

In this book, she winds metaphor after metaphor, linking them with a few real-life stories, to describe what it’s like to build a life as a writer.

You lay out a line of words.
And then another.
The page is what teaches you to write.
That’s her thing.

At times, she seemed to be trying to hard, but I also wanted to be swept up in her descriptions of nature and loosely connected threads of thoughts. She acknowledged this perceived high-brow-ness with a story; she was humbled when a child referenced one of her essays that she thought only “the critics” had appreciated. So that helped.

It’s a short book – barely a hundred pages. Fun fact: I own a first edition, which I must have gotten from a used bookstore. Reading her perspective reinforced the ideas that I started marinating after King’s book. There were a few more relatable moments with Dillard, though. She has a love-hate relationship with the practice of writing, and I FEEL that.

She talks about chopping wood. By the way, context: she would spend whole seasons in a cabin on an island somewhere off the coast of Washington. So, that’s where she’s coming from…we have the same life…

She talks about trying to chop wood and aiming for the log itself and getting nowhere. She only started chopping through wood when she aimed for the chopping block. That hit me like a ton of logs in the moment when I understood exactly what she meant about writing.

Another very relatable thing that I appreciated was her hypothetical timeline for writing a book. Stephen King’s is three months. Annie says, “It takes years to write a book – between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant…Out of a human population on earth of [billions], perhaps twenty people can write a book in a year. Some people lift cars, too.” I was definitely laughing out loud. Every writer/person is different, y’all.

Read these little quotes that express my feelings, and then I’ll talk more.

“…your work is so meaningless, so fully for yourself alone, and so worthless to the world, that no one except you cares whether you do it well, or ever. You are free to make several close judgment calls a day. Your freedom is a by-product of your days’ triviality.”

“What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days….Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading – that is a good life.”

“Politely, he asked me about my writing. Foolishly, not dreaming I was about to set my own world tumbling down about my ears, I said I hated to write. I said I would rather do anything else. He was amazed…Why did I do it? I had never inquired. How had I let it creep up on me? Why wasn’t I running a ferryboat, like sane people?”

And this, quoted at the beginning of Chapter Seven: “It’s easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm comes to them.” – Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot

(Although I would say that a lot of my anxiety comes from the fact that…most people are calling themselves writers, man. There just isn’t a market for that…even an intellectual/individual market. I can’t possibly read all of the personal blogs by people I know who are good writers, and keep up with whatever kind of journalism I’m into, and read books, and read emails, etc. And neither can you. How are you even reading this? And if I’m really just one of the voices screaming into the void, and not good enough to pursue publishing – or not productive enough [duh] – then what am I doing? Just more triviality? This is my spiral.)

Writing all day everyday is not a real thing. It’s not a full-time job unless you’re living on an inheritance or have a spouse that’s supporting you and your children and your nanny…which I suppose is more realistic than being an heir to fortune.

But even if it seemed like a real possibility, I’m not sure I would choose it. It’s not that I mind being alone. (Frankly, I often choose it, mostly because I tend to feel like an idiot whenever other people are around. I lose my speech because my head empties of anything interesting and fills up with vapidity, and I know that everyone in the room is more immediately interesting to everyone else and I would prefer to go home where there’s nobody making their first impression of me or affirming their first impression of me or giving me a chance which I will somehow butterfinger away.) I am obviously more comfortable by myself. But hours upon hours? With just my thoughts? The above parenthetical rants are pretty good examples of what that’s like. It also means there’s a deficit…the inspiration well is never being filled up. In one way, that’s part of writing. To quote Dillard one more time, “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the writer’s childhood. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.” She’s not exactly endorsing that approach, but I think every writer is probably in danger.

I want to do more tangibly meaningful work. I also want to write tangibly meaningful work. But like I was saying, most writers have to make it work. Stephen King and his wife worked long hours in low-wage jobs, scraped by with little ones, and he wrote in the back room or the hallway or wherever he had to, continually trying to get paid for it. I’m not used to having to work that hard. Privilege has been my reality, and it has given me so much to be grateful for. It has also robbed me of some valuable life lessons, so that I’m a little behind and a little bit eating-humble-pie about it. Oh, you have to work and try and fail and keep going if you really want to do something? What if it’s too hard? Then maybe you’ll just never do it.

Oh, also! This is the book that the quote at the top of my blog’s home page came from. SHOUTOUT! Here’s the longer chunk that bit came from:
“Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

Podcast: Pass the Mic
Show: Brooklyn 99
Music: supafun new singles from Arcade Fire. Also, Blind Pilot always. Listening to them riiight nowwww and feelin’ warm like whiskey. The Staves. Music is my writing backdrop sorry.