Thursday, April 25, 2013

Reading Journal: The Good, the Bad, and the . . . let's just stop there.

Earlier this week I returned The Night Circus to store even though I was only about halfway through it. I was so disappointed. Everyone seemed to love it so, and I thought I would love it, but given that it took me two months to read 214 pages and there were still 170-some pages to go, love does not seem like the thing that was happening.

Morgenstern tried so hard to make the story elegant that it became nothing but caricature. It's supposed to be a battle between magicians, which sounds a lot more interesting than Morgenstern manages to make it—at least as far as I read. The illusions are too perfect, too intricate, the characters too exactly what you would expect of them. After a while the detailed descriptions of the magic contained in the circus become downright wearisome, and in the meantime I was longing to learn more about the characters outside their roles as performers. The only action I found compelling was Celia's refusal to let her father change her name. That happened on p. 11. I read 203 more pages waiting for someone to do something admirable and/or interesting. Yes, there's lots of magic and illusion, and it's all "Interesting," but none of it is actually interesting.

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I get paid to read textbooks and student essays. No one is paying me to read novels, so when I'm reading "off the clock," as it were, I have the right to enjoy it. So I gave myself a little mental shake, retrieved my favorite bookmark, and back to the library it went.

Turns out I dropped Circus at exactly the right time because Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, happened to show up in my holds queue the very same day. (If you've already read it, visit the link just for the doll. I am going to need a Bernadette doll.)

Bernadette is everything Circus is not. Primarily that consists of being believably unbelievable, with characters who are loveable because they are interchangeably flawed and redeemable, sometimes one or the other moment to moment, usually both at the same time. The story of a misanthropic, semi-agoraphobic* famous architect and her family is constructed through a series of e-mails, memos, transcripts, articles, and other electronic ephemera. It looks like the stack of research someone getting ready to write a book would compile, not the book itself, and at first I thought that conceit would drive me batty, but I wound up sinking right in. It's an excellent way to execute sudden shifts in point of view. In fact, when Semple switched to traditional first-person narration at the end, it was a little disconcerting. It was the only off-note in what I am unashamedly calling a symphony of awesome.

Okay, I'll admit the ending of Bernadette is maybe not the most believable denouement in all of literature, but it works because you want it so, so badly. I was prepared for the story to end in the predictable, practical way. I would've understood. But when it took that one final twist, I was so pleased and excited that I literally gasped aloud. Bertie Sue, who is offended by all unexpected noises, even relatively quiet ones, woke up and gave me the glare of death. I'm seriously thinking of proposing her as the library mascot. Having been suitably chastised, I finished the rest of the book wearing a huge (silent) grin.

So, to conclude, The Night Circus: Skillful writing, really boring plot—or more probably an interesting plot poorly executed. If you're really into magic, read it just for the descriptions of the circus; otherwise, skip it and reread Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell instead. Where'd You Go, Bernadette: Read it. Do you hear me? Read it!

*Yes, yes, I know.  

P.S. I had forgotten that Bernadette was one of the contenders in the 2013 Tournament of Books. That's how it made it onto my reading list in the first place. It lost its round to The Orphan Master's Son, which ultimately won the tournament. I suppose I'll have to it read now, though it doesn't sound like near as much fun.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Point

A week or two ago I read Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. It's a generally pleasing if somewhat meandering story set mostly in a mysterious vertical bookstore. But for about two pages, it became more than pleasing; it became magic.

When the story finally wound its way toward its focus, a secret society that appears at first glance to be devoted to books, I almost dropped Penumbra in the bathwater (the bath being where I do all my best reading). Suddenly I was not just interested, but entranced. It was no longer enough just to live the characters' lives along with them for as long as I could stand the hot water. I was now so engaged in the story that I was momentarily convinced that I, too, must found a secret society dedicated to the glory of the book! I found myself inspired to become part of the story in a way I have not been inspired since I was a kid. Of course turning the page brought disappointment. It turns out the society wasn't so much dedicated to books as to gaining immortality, with books simply the tool. Why would anyone want to be immortal? Blech.

But for that two-page moment, I was thrilled, plotting my own society. For a moment, my life seemed different. That's a feeling I remember from so long ago. The stories I read as a kid could capture me, and the fact that I couldn't pull the characters and their experiences off the page—or dive in with them—was almost anguish.

So when I read that bit in Penumbra, it struck me almost like a scent-memory, the same way that walking into my house in the winter and smelling the gas space heater in the basement invariably makes me think of my grandparents' house, or how the scent of rubbing alcohol gives me the shivers even though the nearest nurse brandishing a hypodermic is miles away, and I'm not scheduled to pay her a visit for months.

The first book that sprang to mind was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg. I have never wanted to live inside any story quite so much as I wanted to live with Claudia and Jamie in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. When I heard yesterday that Mrs. Konigsburg had died, I started thinking about that feeling, and wondering when I would experience it again. Penumbra is the first time I can remember feeling it, however briefly, as an adult. But as a child it was almost commonplace.

I wanted to journey toward Digitopolis with Milo, live in a boxcar with the Boxcar Children, get a group of friends to start our own business like the girls in the Babysitters Club, hang out with Turtle Wexler while we solved the mystery of Sam Westing's death, and rescue and raise a runty piglet just like when Fern saved Wilbur, among other adventures.  

For me the highest purpose of reading, beyond edification or self-improvement, is to simply become someone else for a little while. Occasionally one runs across folks who sneer that they don't read fiction because it isn't real. What, they ask, is the point? Poet John Ciardi answered that question so much more eloquently than I ever could: 
For a great book is necessarily a gift: it offers you a life you have not time to live yourself; and it takes you into a world you have not time to travel in literal time. A civilized human mind is, in essence, one that contains many such minds and many such worlds. If you are in too much of a hurry, or too arrogantly proud of your own limitations, to accept a gift to your humanity some pieces of the minds of Sophocles, of Aristotle, of Chaucer—and right down the scale and down the ages to Yeats, Einstein, E.B. White, and Ogden Nash—then you may be protected by the laws governing manslaughter, and you may be a voting entity, but you are neither a developed human being nor a useful citizen of democracy.
That's the point.

What characters would you bring to life if you could? All recommendations welcome!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

B-Doodles is All About the Love

LOOKIT! LOOKIT! LOOKIT! Dog a Day is a site by an artist who posts, well, a dog a day. Normally she does pit bulls, but right now she's doing a series of "Gotcha!" stories, so I sent her Brewster's story. That she picked him for yesterday's post, as an antidote to the the bombing at the Boston Marathon, is particularly wonderful. 

The post, which is a lovely introduction by the artist, and then my story about how I adopted Brewster, is here: Gotcha! Brewster.

B-Doodles in all his fuzzy glory by Laurelin Sitterly of Dog a Day Art.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dissertation Season

It's dissertation season again, and the panicked e-mails demanding and/or begging for editorial help are in full swing. If you are a graduate student looking for editorial help, or if you are a thesis or dissertation advisor recommending that a student get editorial help, keep the following information in mind.

1. I do this for a living (in other words, momma's gotta pay the bills), so:
a. To ensure I have a steady flow of income, I keep my schedule full for 4 to 6 weeks ahead of time. You may get lucky and catch me at a slow time when I can start work on your project immediately, but that's rare. Please contact me at least two weeks before I should begin work and at least six weeks before you want the project finished. Unfortunately, if you're supposed to submit at the end of this month (April 2013), it's too late for me to help you. 
Advisors: Don't wait until the last minute to inform your student that you won't accept the thesis or dissertation without a professional edit. Presumably you've seen multiple samples of your student's writing before the later drafts and have known for a while that he or she will need help. Waiting until 2 weeks before the submission date to tell the student that he or she needs editorial help is unfair. Ideally, all students should be made aware of the potential need for an editor very early in the dissertation process so they can both schedule and budget appropriately. 
b. If we've agreed on a schedule and a price, and then I don't hear from you again for several days or weeks, I will take other projects in the meantime and may no longer be available. If you have a delay, please keep me in the loop so I can keep a spot for you in my schedule. I have to keep working and can't sit idly while I wait for a project that may or may not show up.  
c. My services are dirt cheap in the context of what other professional editors charge, but cheap is a relative term. Right now, spring 2013, I'm charging between $4 and $4.50 a page depending on the level of edit. If your thesis is 100 pages (determined by word count), you can expect to pay at least $400. A budget of $50 will get you a slap-dash proofread from one of your friends. It will not buy a full edit from a professional copyeditor.
d. A slap-dash proofread is better than nothing, though, so if $50 is all you have, enlist your English major friend. (Everyone should have an English major friend.)
2. I am a professional, so:
a. This is not McDonald's, and you cannot simply order up an instant copyedit. Sending an e-mail with manuscript attached informing me of how much you'll pay and that you need it back by the end of the week is a waste of your time and mine. 
b. Please address me in a professional manner. Don't demand that I do your bidding; ask if I'm available for a new project. Remember that I am not your employee or an employee of your university.
c. When you e-mail me, tell me (1) when the project must be completed, allowing time for you to review my copyedit to accept or reject changes before your submission date; and (2) the expected word count for the full project. It's also helpful to attach a sample, a minimum of five pages. With this information, I can determine immediately if I can fit you into my schedule, and I can complete a sample edit for you to review so you can decide if you want to hire me. 
3. I love my job. If I can take your project, I will. If I turn you down, it's because my schedule is already full, not because I take your needs lightly. Know that I've done grad school myself. I do understand the poverty and the frustrations and the poverty. And did I mention the poverty? (I just now had to stop writing to take a call from the student loan people. They never call just to chat.) Even if I can't take your project, I wish you the very best of luck.