Books and Summer Reads

I just finished Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, which is a follow up to Oryx and Crake. If you have read and loved, as most do, her Handmaid’s Tale, you might like this dovetailed pair. As with Handmaid’s, these take place in a dystopian, not too distant future world where animals have been gene spliced to create new species and the social ills of civilization are taking their toll on everything. It is a fast forward look at where our consumerism, vanity, corporeal and corporate corruption might take us.

As with Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s imagination brings to life women who patiently navigate their way through dangerous situations that threaten their individuality, bodies, and mental states with hushed tones and secret conveyances while planning a way to escape and/or to survive. Oryx and Crake begins with a man isolated in a world recently wiped out by plague, in which the boots of guards dead outside biological engineering companies still bake in the sun, and where compound animal species (such as rakunks) roam the forest that is taking over what was once civilization. He tells the story of the man who was responsible for the destruction of everything and in the end finds others who are still alive. The Year of the Flood tells a parallel story of a group of subversive “greenies” who are called God’s Gardeners and who seek to live an anti-consumerist, ecologically friendly life and to spread the word before the “waterless flood” destroys the world. This story ends at the same place the other one does, except from the other side of the camp fire, so to speak. I really liked the way the two books were not a series in the traditional sense, where one story follows another. Instead, they are concurrent stories that converge in the same spot.

Other books I can recommend: If you have not already read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, it is a great summer read. It is a modern day Salem witch story that oscillates back and forth between a young woman discovering her heritage in Salem today and the story of a real witch from the Salem Witch Trials. I actually just added it to a list of choice books in my upcoming American Literature class. In an attempt to actually get kids to like reading, we try to assign enjoyable, contemporary novels that pick up on themes or subjects from the canon, as outside, independent reading and I thought the kids would really like in connection to the early New England works we read in class.

In relation to Howe’s book, I can also recommend if you like witchy women and historical fiction: Daughter’s of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt. This is an excellent piece of historical fiction that takes place in the early 17th century in England – centering on a “cunning woman” trying to make ends meet with folk magic mixed with the then forbidden Catholic faith. It takes place during the reign of James I, and his Daemonologie, which was the basis for interrogations and examinations precluding the various witch trials across Europe and New England.

I also recently read Joe Hill’s Horns. This was a very interesting new type of “horror” story – I guess, written by none other than the son of Stephen King. For some bizarre reason, the agent I met with at the conference I went to recently suggested I compare myself to Joe Hill. By this comment, I am not sure if she even read my pages. But – this book – about a guy who wakes up one morning with devil horns on his head – is a unique and good read.

I am interested to hear in books others have to recommend. As school is getting out soon, I will be reading probably two books a week, so bring it on. I just returned from the library and, as always, came away with an armload of books. One I just picked up that seems interesting is a nonfiction book on the history of poison and chemistry. The chemical revolution is something I researched for DISTILLATION – from alchemy to modern day pharmaceuticals and my brain is ticking away at some ideas for the new story I am writing.

I also plan on reading some classics this summer – which I always plan – but do not always actually get to. Currently, I have Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (just coming off Hamlet at school and this is a must) and Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned on my list.

How many licks does it take?

I have been revising and revising and revising. Writing group met last Saturday and I spent the rest of the day reworking my first three chapters – again. I have to confess – I try to be a good workshopee – I try to take criticism well – but it is so hard sometimes when you have spent so much brain power to do it one way and then it is suggested to do it another way. But this is the name of the game and any writer needs to be able to take it – and enjoy it. Which is easier said than done of course. After initial frustration and denial that removing altogether the second chapter which gives the back story of why Alice is heading to Ashfield – I realized it was what I should have done long ago. I always hated that chapter and I had said many times before. And now – with a little outside wisdom to help me – I can see that there was never any reason to show that argument. Maybe I needed to write it so I knew what happened – but my readers don’t need to read it. I have taken the advice of my writing group and a number of writing web sites and have now sprinkled in the back story in small doses in other places. At least that was what I set out to do – but soon I realized that most of it was already in there in some form or another and that I didn’t even need to add more in. What a liberating feeling to delete much of the Steven scene. I am happy to have done it. In the same stroke though I had to move much of the initial view of Josephine – which I did find ways to sprinkle in. And I think it works better now.

Having done all of this – I was then able to pull forward yet another chapter into the first three. Now all of the main characters are introduced in those first three chapters and the stage is fully set. I have erased all time shifts – even if that means Evelyn leaves the day Alice moves in – which I hated the idea of originally when I combined the two coming to Ashfield chapters. But now it doesn’t seem so bad. I kind of just let it be .

I am intending to send my manuscript to the MUSE on Monday. I have a little tweaking to do on the letter and the synopsis – now that I have taken out the Steven chapter – but that shouldn’t be hard to do. Famous last words.

In other news. I checked out of the library a short novel by Stephen King that I had never heard of until I was doing a recent google search on the subject of what is planned to be my next novel. In an article on the subject – the murder of a girl on an island off the coast of Maine – it said that Stephen King had written about the incident in the afterward to his story The Colorado Kid. So I checked it out and sure enough he beat me to the punch -sort of. I have not read his story yet – but it is the story of a boy who is found dead on a beach on an island off the coast of Maine. As far as I can tell he did not use the original circumstances as much as I plan to.

So I don’t know if this is a good thing or not – but at least I am picking ideas that Stephen King also thinks are good. And I think my story though inspired by the same event – will not be the same story at all. But I still have to read the rest of the book. So we’ll see.

Otherwise – grading papers is on going – but I use my writing as a reward. Once I have met my quota of papers for the day I can work a little on the ms. That is where I am at now – so onward.

Last thought – it is utterly flabbergasting how much I have edited this novel in the last two months. From the 7,000 word cut – the count is now 96,500 – down from 103,000 – to the trimming of the first three chapters . I can liken it to pruning a rose. Prune more than you think you should and it will blossom into something beautiful. (I hope)

Sunday and Stephen King

Stephen King says in his book On Writing of the days when he was a high school English teacher and trying to write on the side, that by Friday afternoon he’d felt as if he’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to his brain. “If I ever came close to despairing about my future as a writer, it was then. I could see myself thirty years on…with six or seven unfinished manuscripts (in my desk drawer) which I would take out and tinker with from time to time, usually when drunk. If asked what I did in my spare time, I’d tell people I was writing a book – what else does any self respecting creative writing teacher do with his or her spare time? And of course I’d lie to myself, telling myself there was still time, it wasn’t too late, there were novelists who didn’t get started until they were fifty, hell even sixty.”

This is how I feel today.