Thursday, May 27, 2010

Recent Reading

I need to update my Shelfari bookshelf. Poor Shelfari thinks I've only read 5 books this year. In fact I'm always reading but I tend to only put up the ones that rise to a certain interest level. This week I read two books that I know I'll never forget, and one book that wasn't that great in itself, but which definitely started my creativity flowing.
I hate to admit it but I often avoid books that touch even a little on the Israel-Palestine thing, so while I'd heard of Amos Oz, the Israeli writer, I'd never read any of his novels. But I'm so glad I ran across A Tale of Love and Darkness, Oz's memoir of growing up in pre-state of Israel Jerusalem. It focuses on his mother, who loved to tell him stories, and his more skeptical father, and the world of their neighbors, refugees from a now-lost Europe. Oz is a master writer, and he moves back and forth in time, calling up now a girls' school in 1920s Poland, now life on a kibbutz in the 1950s, now 1990s Israel, all the while trying to understand the factors that led to his mother's suicide when he was 12.
Anna Anderson spent most of her life pretending to be Anastasia Romanov (at least if you believe the DNA tests) and her story is told in A Romanov Fantasy: Life at the Court of Anna Anderson by Frances Welch. It's an entertaining book -- Anna ended her life as a Crazy Cat Lady, and the man she married to gain US citizenship was nutty as a fruitcake himself. The problem I had with this book was that it just told the story without going any deeper. I'd like to know why Anna fooled so many people for so many years -- why did the people who supported her (and were usually badly treated by her) need to believe she was Anastasia? What did she represent to them and to the moviemakers, etc. who told her story? Even her surburban neighbors late in life believed she was Anastasia. Why? Well, the book doesn't answer these questions but it's such a fascinating story -- identity and imposters and what terms like nobility and royalty are really supposed to signify -- that I've filed it away for the future.
The last book is The City of Trembling Leaves by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, a genuine Nevada writer (famous for The Ox-Bow Incident.) It was written in 1945 and is one of those big, satisfying mid-century novels about growing up (i.e., S-E-X) and, in particular, discovering yourself as an artist and struggling to create something lasting and meaningful. The city of the title is Reno, and the book will make you fall in love with it, and Carmel, and Death Valley and the entire West. It's a little bit like Thomas Wolfe in places, and in others Willa Cather and I can tell it's one of those books I'm going to read over and over.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thoughts about Research

A recent post on Elle Strauss' blog got me to thinking about research.
I like things to be right in the world I create. I always imagine someone somewhere will pop up and say, "no, you're wrong about this detail," and then I have terrifying imaginary arguments with them. But sometimes research is about more than detail -- it's about getting the right feeling, and that's tricky.
My MC in How to See the Elephant suffers from (though I never use the term) what are supposed to be asthma attacks. When I revised it I saw that the asthma scenes fell flat: I didn't capture her fear and panic during the attacks, and especially her embarrassment when they happen in public. I felt I couldn't do this until I knew more about asthma. Needless to say, I don't have asthma and don't know anyone who does.
(At this point I am also saying to myself, why did you have to pick asthma? Why not migraines? You can do migraines. But in fact the asthma attacks serve as kind of a symbol of her imprisonment at boarding school; after she runs away she doesn't have them anymore. So I felt they had a function in the plot.)
My first stop was some of the medical textbooks I have access to at work. Here I got a clinical description of the pathology and physiology of asthma, its incidence, ramifications for public health, long-term management, and so on. Really, nothing to help me write a scene describing an attack from the point of view of a asthma sufferer.
So I went to Youtube. Maybe, I reasoned, I could find a video or two of someone having an asthma attack. There were way more than one or two videos, but they turned out to fall into two categories: 1) someone runs up a hill, then coughs a little, or 2) someone in an ER with a mask over their face. Youtube did help me correct a whopping error I'd made with having my MC lie down during her attacks. In fact, it's dangerous for anyone having an asthma attack to lie down -- they are supposed to sit or lean forward. (Immediate re-write there of about 5 scenes.) But other than that there just wasn't enough visible detail in the videos to help me write the scenes. And I also realized that watching a modern-day asthma attack, cut short or helped by an inhaler, wouldn't be the same as an asthma attack in the 19th century. My MC wouldn't have had an inhaler or much in the way of medicine.
We think of an illness as something which is unchangeable over time. A 19th century asthma attack can't be much different from a 20th century one, right? Well, I wasn't so sure. The pathology of asthma -- the swelling of the bronchi -- is the same no matter what, of course. But how a disease is perceived, whom it affects, how the symptoms are described -- these are all subjective. Asthma, for instance, was considered to be a nervous disease, with a psychological origin, well into the 20th century. So what I needed was a natural or social history of asthma, something that would describe asthma as someone in the 19th century saw it.
Well, with a little bit of careful searching, I found, on Google Books, a treatise written in 1882 by a Dr. Henry Salter, who was a pioneer of asthma research. (He was the first to show it could be caused by environmental factors like animal dander.) I learned a lot of interesting information from Dr. Salter's book. For one thing, Dr. Salter didn't seem to think of asthma as a terribly dangerous illness. He doesn't mention any fatalities among his patients and he describes attacks that go on for as long as three days, off and on. Dr. Salter was also convinced that smoking and city air were good for asthma. Like others of his day, he thought it was a nervous illness and he describes it as occuring in definite periods or cycles. Best of all, though, Dr. Salter devotes an entire chapter to describing "the asthma attack." Wikipedia describes the noise an asthma sufferer makes as "whistling." Dr. Salter describes the same noise as "like a mouse squeaking or a kitten mewing."
When I was done with the chapter I felt I had what I needed to re-write the scenes. In fact, I had to avoid the other pitfall of research, which is putting in too much information. The details were odd, but they were 19th century details, and the scenes worked much better for them. And I'm ready to have an imaginary argument with anyone who says otherwise.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Writing anywhere (not a plug for Pei Wei)

I'm sitting at the kitchen table with my son shooting free throws almost over my head, with my notebook open and my draft, with handwritten corrections, beside it. I'm at work, shut up in a tiny room proctoring two students taking an exam. Ten minutes later I finish my book and and out comes the notebook. Yes, I'm in one of those rare moods when I can write anywhere, in the presence of anybody.
I remember the writing the start of How to See the Elephant particularly well, because I went out to lunch to write on purpose, so that I would actually have that hour instead of having it chipped away by work. I went to Pei Wei, and I became so involved in what I was doing that when the waiter came to take my bowl and said, are you a writer? I jumped about three feet and realized I was late getting back. I understand the waiter's suprise. I don't suppose anyone ever started a novel at Pei Wei, because its the opposite of Starbucks in that no one stays there longer than 20 minutes.
But that experience is really the exception for me. I'm not much of a public writer. But I am a travelling writer, and as long as I have my notebook and feel that tight connection with the text, I'll write anywhere.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The reviser and the revised

I started revising just one particular part of How to See the Elephant in February and it snowballed to the whole thing but I can definitely say now I'm almost done. This week I re-read it backwards, starting with the last chapter and working back through the book. I'm not sure what gave me the idea to do this but I thought it would give me a new perspective on the separate parts of the book and sort of get me out of the familar groove (you know -- when you've read the paragraphs so many times you don't really see them anymore.) I'm also not sure it was a really helpful idea, on the whole. For one thing, when I finally got to the first chapter, it seemed flat. Of course, reading backwards is a decrescendo so naturally it would be flat, right? (It doesn't seem flat when I read it forwards.) But maybe there is something in that chapter that I'm missing and ought to be looking at.
Anyway, this has left me in a doldrums kind of mood and a serious question about revising. When I rip up paragraphs and passages and write new scenes, am I really making it better? Or does it just seem better when I re-read it because it's new?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Summer reading

This time of year I usually go to the library and re-check out The Country of the Pointed Fir, by Sarah Orne Jewett. There's really not much to The Country of the Pointed Fir, as a novel. All that happens is a woman writer goes to Maine for the summer and meets some of the local people -- a woman who lives on an island, for instance, and an old man who's traveled on an Arctic expedition. Like a lot of 19th century writing it focuses on the quaint and is long on description. And yet I re-read every year around this time because it gives me a pure, unadulterated feeling of beginning-of-summer: blue water and boats and pines and sunshine. Another set of books I often turn to for the same reason are the Anne of Green Gables books. I know them by heart, and I know what I don't like about them, and yet I re-read them at least twice a year, purely for comfort.
How about you? What qualifies as your comfort reading?