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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Writer Wednesday- An Officer and a Spy

Hello! It's time for Writer Wednesday, when I discuss another author and his or her work.

The real Georges Picquart 
Robert Harris'An Officer and a Spy is a captivating story of the late nineteenth century Dreyfus Affair in France. It's told in first person through Georges Picquart, an officer deeply connected to the events surrounding the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus. Although this is a work of historical fiction, the novel draws upon true history. In truth, this is not a book about an officer but about many. Likewise, a spy is central but espionage at large would be more accurate. From 1890s Paris to the French countryside and beyond, readers are propelled along a journey of seeking to find answers and the truth. Robert Harris presents a very engaging view into a little known avenue of history. It's almost too wild to be true- almost, but not, and that is part of what makes this so thrilling. The characters have extra invested in them, because they were real. You want everything to be all right for them. Was it? You'll have to read to find out yourself and to navigate all the avenues of history that this narrative takes you down.

My best to you all,

Monday, February 24, 2014

How do you find the books you read?

Where do you find what to read next? Perhaps, a cover jumps out at you from a book store. Maybe you have a friend who always provides the best recommendations. You might read widely across many genres, or maybe you have a few time-tested favorite authors that you return to repeatedly. To the left, you'll find a poll where you can record your answers. If an answer doesn't appear, or if you just have something to share, please comment on this post. Whatever is true for you, I'm interested in hearing how you find what books to read. Thanks for filling in the poll!

My best to you all,

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Saturday's Quotation to Inspire: Books as Friend and Teacher

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot

Friday, February 21, 2014

Friday Fun

It's time for Friday Fun! In honor of Presidents' Day this week, here's a quiz about the presidents. How well do you know them?

My best to you all,

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Writer Wednesday - William Blake and Winter

It's time for Writer Wednesday, when I discuss another author and his or her work. Today, I'd like to share William Blake's poem "To Winter".

To Winter

William Blake (from Poetical Sketches, 1783)

O winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car.

He hears me not, but o’er the yawning deep
Rides heavy; his storms are unchain’d, sheathed
In ribbed steel; I dare not lift mine eyes;
For he hath rear’d his sceptre o’er the world.

Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o’er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.

He takes his seat upon the cliffs, the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal’st
With storms, till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driven yelling to his caves beneath Mount Hecla.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday's Quotation to Inspire: Creative Reading

One must be an inventor to read well. There is then creative reading as well as creative writing.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Writer Wednesday

Today is Writer Wednesday, when I discuss another author and his or her work. Today, we're discussing Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin. What that means is that today's Writer Wednesday is commentary on an author by another author and my commentary on that.

The first Jane Austen that I read was Pride and Prejudice in high school for my AP Literature class. I was on the train returning from Switzerland and so my early Jane moments are punctuated by looking up to see the passing cows, the rolling hills and the wooden houses. It is a somewhat different landscape than that of Jane's and yet, there's a pastoral quality that often appears in her settings.

Like Shakespeare, that I was also first introduced to in high school, Jane Austen seems to lend herself to the dramatic arts. Unlike Shakespeare, her works were written as novels and not plays and yet they spring to life and (in my opinion) are best enjoyed acted out. Part of this is from the masterful dialogue that Austen creates. Part of this, though, is from Jane's early childhood experiences with her siblings when they put on plays, particularly at Christmas. I had never heard of these amateur dramatics until reading Tomalin's book.

The book chronicles not only Jane's life,  but also her siblings, her cousins, her parents, her grandparents, her extended family and her neighbors. It is insight into how and why and when she wrote her books and also into the details of her life and those of her family's and friend's. This is valuable in better understanding the novels of Austen. For example, when Catherine in Northanger Abbey is sent to the Allens, this dovetails with Jane's own brother Edward being sent to live with the Knights. An older sibling from a large family is "adopted" by a couple and brought into their circle of life. This played itself to a fuller extent in Edward's life than in Catherine's.

Aside from many interesting pieces of information that provide greater understanding of the works and the author, Tomalin's book testifies to the endurance of an author pursuing publication. Many of Austen's works were turned down. Some sat unpublished- even in the hands of publishers, as was the case of Northanger Abbey (originally titled Susan), for years- decades even- before publication. It is difficult in a world where Austen is ubiquitous and synonymous with good literature to imagine Jane rejected and totally reliant on the good fortune of her brothers. Yet, that was the case for a number of years. Thankfully, Jane preserved and Tomalin has written a very interesting book about her life.

My best to you all,

Monday, February 10, 2014

Historical Fiction- Known or Unknown Main Characters


Historical fiction as a genre tells the story of characters in the past with some level of genuine experience. That is, there is supposed to be a level of believability and realism. This definition is rather broad, though, and often encompasses other stylistic literary devices such as mystery, suspense,  or adventure as well.

The characters in historical fiction need only be contemporaries of the time period in which their setting is. That is, a book about the Renaissance must feature Renaissance characters. A book set in Victorian London must feature characters from Victorian London. This seems straightforward enough.

What I would like to discuss today is the appearance of real life characters versus completely literary characters in historical fiction. Events, settings, and time periods are all drawn from history in order to create a work of historical fiction. Real elements are combined with fiction to create a novel, rather than a book of history or a biography. Characters are also an element that can be fictional or not. For example, a novel might be written about George Washington, even though George Washington was a real, authentic, historical person. The story is historical fiction, though, if events that are not known or conversations that are not recorded are present and worked into a story.

Many books, particularly recently published works of historical fiction, fictionalize a real historical character. There is a built-in interest for these books, if the historical figure is well-known or popular. Recently many books have featured the lesser-known wives of historical figures. These lesser-known and less-often written about women lend themselves to fiction when fewer facts of their actual lives are known. Part of the appeal of these books is for the backstage feeling of seeing the historical actor from a different view. What was it really like on a personal level to know George Washington, for instance?

Certainly, these books have a market, can be entertaining and have an appeal. For my own writing, though, I tend to write about characters that are not known. That is, they exist in my writing, not as prior actual figures of history. Part of this is because a historical figure has not yet lent itself to an idea of mine. Part of this, though, is that I like (an an author and a reader) that characters of pure literary existence have stories that aren't known. What do I mean? Anyone call look up a biography of a historical figure(even easier now with the internet) and known the outcome of a battle, if the person survives a sickness, the identity of the figure's future spouse.

With characters that exist only in fiction, their history belongs to reality but their own personal stories do not and so there is more freedom, more movement and more mystery. An example here is Elizabeth Wein's Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. Part of the reason their stories are so gripping is because we know that real people experienced things like them, but they are fictional characters and so what happens to them is mysterious. In a book with fictional characters anything can happen. Books that portray real historical figures, such as the books about Zelda Fitzgerald gain a large audience because they are like behind the scenes access to celebrities of another era. They are enjoyed by many and are just as much historical fiction, but they must live by the rules of the figure's real life. In some ways, this must be more challenging to write. The author is not left to his or her own discretion. They must follow what has happened in history. On the other hand, there is no need to worry if what happens is plausible or creditable, when the historical record is followed.

Both types of historical fiction are popular, entertaining and interesting. Do you have a favorite- created or real-life characters? If so, why is this your preference?

My best to you all,

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Saturday's Quotation to Inspire- Dragons and Fairy Tales

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
― Neil Gaiman

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Writer Wednesday - Robert Frost and Snow

It's time for Writer Wednesday, when I discuss another author and his or her book.

Today, I'd like to share with you Robert Frost's poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening". I remember first reading this poem in fourth grade and being charmed by it. Years later, it's still one of my favorites.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

This beautiful picture is from here

What are some of your favorite poems?

My best to you all,

Monday, February 3, 2014

Today in History...


On this day in 1870, the fifteenth amendment for the United States Constitution was ratified. Its significance is that all American men, regardless of race, were entitled to vote. There are three important things to consider.
1) The Civil War had already ended five years before, when many assume that this right emerged. That testifies that even when battles are fought, the case is not necessarily closed.
2) Writing is often required to enact ideals that have already (at least in part) been fought for. Think of this as a historical case-in-point for "the pen is mightier than the sword".
3) Although this made significant progress in assuring that all citizens could vote, only men were enfranchised at this point. What this means is that sometimes the entire story isn't accomplished at once. Even legislation at times requires sequels.

Have a look at the original 15th Amendment, supplied by the National Archives, here

*This document is visible on the Wikipedia page about the 15th amendment.

My best to you all,

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Saturday's Quotation to Inspire- Castles in the Air

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."- Henry David Thoreau