Roger Zelazny and Me: Talking the Literary Canon at Backspace

confhotelmay I attended the Backspace Writer’s Conference last weekend (it was my birthday present, actually). Wow, what a ride. Three days of workshops packed with info on what literary agents really want (no, really); how a book idea becomes a movie (it’s not how you might think); inspiring words from YA author A.S. King (One truly cool chick, go check her out. Like, right now. I’ll wait.); and choreographing fight scenes with thriller author Jonathan Maberry (holy crap, I didn’t know you could break someone’s elbow with two fingers!). All culminating in the equivalent of Writers’ Church with superagent Donald Maass talking about his writing how-to: 21st Century Fiction (props to Vanessa Lillie for coining the term 🙂 ). Lots of take aways, lots of work up ahead for me, but the best part was that I got to indulge one of my all-time passions: talking about books and favorite authors with people who love books and authors.bryantparkmay

In an evening conversation with Ted Boone, aspiring Science Fiction writer, I related an event that sticks out in my mind as formative regarding my notions of novelists and what they do. I don’t read SF these days (and I definitely don’t write it–never say never) but I have read it in the past and here’s why: When I was a young kid looking to sell Girl Scout cookies, my mom took me up to Stagecoach Drive in Santa Fe, which was potentially a brilliant sales strategy because Stagecoach Drive is Santa Fe’s equivalent of Newport, RI’s Bellevue Avenue. I don’t remember if I sold a lot of cookies–I think we were a bit stymied by the gated driveways–but the key to our trip was Mom’s acquaintance with Judy Zelazny, Roger Zelazny’s then wife. Roger Zelazny, for those of you who don’t know, was the prolific and award-winning author of classic Science Fiction and Fantasy novels. His oeuvre spanned the “Golden Years” of SF/F from about 1962 into the 1990s. He died in 1995. He was particularly known for his Amber series and for elevating pure genre fiction to something more literary. George R.R. Martin (of Game of Thrones fame and another Santa Fe resident) counts Zelazny as an inspiration for his own work.NinePrincesInAmber500

At any rate, Mrs. Zelazny selected a flattering number of my boxes of cookies, and while I was counting out change, she asked if I might like to see where her husband worked. I had no notion at the time that I was entering the workspace of a renowned novelist. I did know Roger Zelazny wrote books because his name was on the paperbacks my brother read non-stop in those days. As I remember the moment (which may bear only a little resemblance to ground truth) we walked down a few sets of stairs, like we were going underground. We got to a set of huge doors, where Mrs. Zelazny knocked. Upon receiving the call to enter, the doors parted like the gates of Mordor, and we entered a place of literary dreams. The Author, ensconced in the middle of floor to ceiling shelves holding books and Hugo awards, turned from his typewriter to greet us politely and a bit distractedly. I think he may have even signed a book or two for my brother. This is a sacred image for me, and no matter how many books I sell in the future (I hoping it will be many!), I don’t think I will count myself a success until I have an equivalent book-lined room of my own.

So thanks to Ted for reminding me of that formative experience. And thanks to Roger Zelazny for opening those doors so I could glimpse the writer at work and dream.

So what are your formative experiences about people in their workplaces? Did you visit a fire station as a kid? See the Marines at 8th and I? Anyone a Roger Zelazny fan?

Be My Valentine, Mr. Grey

dark-grey-silk-designer-tie_600I finally read all three of E L James’s blockbuster Fifty Shades trilogy. I read them at the urging of friends. I read them because when something this big occurs in the world of books, you want to form your own opinions. I read them because as a lifelong romance reader I was intrigued how a story that’s really a staple of the genre became so popular. Though there have been many, many reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey, I am going to add my own impressions to the general din because hey, it’s my blog! AND because Valentine’s Day is my birthday. 😉

I’m not going to worry about announcing **SPOILERS** because I figure if you wanted to read 50 Shades, you already would have by now. And if you don’t want to read it, the spoilers won’t bother you.

Things I didn’t like in the 50 Shades books (AKA a few unanswered questions):

1. Why did Ms. James decide to set the series in Seattle if she was going to have her characters speak the Queen’s English? “Laters, baby.” “Kinky f**kery.” “Fancy a game?” All British-isms. Christian even says, “Quite.” I ask you, do you know any American men who would use that word in that way? Ever?

2. Why do we never find out why Anastasia is so inhibited about sex? We spend the whole story in her head but she never mulls over why she decided to hang on to her virginity and her apparent ignorance about things sexual until she met the enigmatic Mr. Grey.

3. Why did Kate Kavanaugh, college newspaper editor extraordinaire, send her roommate Anastasia Steele to interview Seattle’s hottest bachelor billionaire with only a list of questions and no other preparation? Did she have laryngitis in addition to her flu and couldn’t speak? This in a way is a deal breaker for me story-wise because this unbelievable set up both starts and ends the story (the ending is from Christian’s point of view. Wished for a little more of that…)

4. At the climax of Book 3, after everything they’ve been through, why does Christian STILL think Ana is leaving him when she withdraws $5 million to save his sister Mia from kidnappers (other than it is a necessary plot device)? This does not bode well for their continued happiness, IMO.

Things I DID like (AKA why Christian Grey would make a great Valentine):

1. He is constantly feeding her while telling her she’s too thin. 🙂

2. He also tells her she’s beautiful, smart, capable, and most of all, sexy.

3. He gives her things: clothes, cars (Audis!), first edition Thomas Hardy, trips to France, Laboutin’s, a publishing company, hearts and flowers, an iPad with all of his favorite songs downloaded, orgasms.

4. His “vanilla” sex gives new flavorful meaning to the finest of the flavors.

5. His non-vanilla dominant sex (what’s the opposite of vanilla? chocolate?) is creative, uses fun props, and (control issues aside) is all about Ana (see #3 orgasms). Except when it’s about jealousy or revenge, in which case there is always a safe word, and it’s not “vanilla.”

6. He thinks of her while he is at work. We know this because he sends her great emails. In fact the email exchange between the two was one of my favorite parts of the whole series.

I have read many, many romance novels–which is maybe why friends urged me to read these booksand regarding 50 Shades of Grey, I am more in the “meh” category than the “love,” so I offer this list of follow up reads:

NRChesapeakeIf you liked 50 Shades for the complex story of how a young man damaged by an abusive past–but good to the core–is redeemed by the power of love, there is no one who does that storyline better IMO than the Queen of Romance herself, Nora Roberts. Her Chesapeake Bay series Sea Swept, Rising Tide, Inner Harbor, and Chesapeake Blue are some of her best.

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If you liked 50 Shades for the singe-your-eyelashes sex with dominant men and the feisty women who love them, I recommend Lora Leigh’s EARLIER BOOKS, Wild Card (recently reprinted with a 50 Shades-type cover), Hidden Agendas, and Dangerous Games (I don’t recommend the later series because they suffer from repetition and a general lack of editing IMO).

If you liked 50 Shades for the escape of the “life style porn” of glamorous clothes, private jets, yachts in Monte Carlo,

caitlincrewsand brooding men who own all these things and want to give them (and their love!)  to one special, possibly virginal, young lady, try Harlequin’s long-running “Presents” series, particularly Jane Porter, Caitlin Crews, and India Grey. The books tend to have really off-putting titles like Bedded by the Billionaire and His Majesty’s Secret Baby but the writing is emotion-laden and intense.

Blinkie courtesy E L James author website.

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY, EVERYONE!!! Anyone have great plans for V-day? Any book recommendations? Whatcha been reading lately?

The Technology of Packaging Words: Digital vs. Print

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I have a book problem. Meaning because I love books, I have more than I probably can ever read, and yet I adore finding a new book, cracking it open and immersing myself in the story world. The hubster stated the other day that books should not be the ONLY decorating theme in our home, to which I replied, “Why the heck not?”

But I admit it is a problem, illustrated by these pics of my many, many bookshelves, from the spare and uncluttered one in the living room to the one actually jam-crammed inside a closet (just a sampling, I assure you). I could have one of those rooms with floor to ceiling shelves like the library of Downton Abbey (complete with a book-laden door that leads to the music room! Click link and scroll down for the picture) and STILL find more books I want to read. Don’t let him fool you, the hubster likes books too. Weighty tomes with weighty titles like The History of the World, Come Retribution, and Diseases of Animals, as well as Life of Pi and The Last Werewolf. My shelves, on the other hand, are a jumble (and I mean JUMBLE!) of romantic and historical fiction, history and biography, and writing craft books.

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And then there are my ebooks. I actually have a Kindle and an iPad (on which I have installed iBooks, Kindle, Nook, GooglePlay, AND Kobo apps). And the books are just as jumbled up there as they are on the shelves. Truth be known, I have a little stash of books in PDF on my computer too. All of which makes the argument of digital versus paper, for me, really about packaging. The MAGIC of a book is what is inside the package. Whether you open the cover or click on the icon, that’s just the delivery technology, the true innovation is the language itself.

If pressed, I would probably choose paper books as my story vehicle of choice, but only if I had unlimited shelf space–that decorating issue remains. With paper books, I feel a commonality with generations that have gone before me. I mean, Jane Austen held a book in her hand, opened it, and read the story contained therein. Just as I opened HER book, Pride and Prejudice, the other day and did the same. There was a time when people–humans–were NOT able to reach back in history and feel kinship with “book” readers. The printed word was new. A new technology, just like the digital book. But the STORIES, well, they were still around then, weren’t they?

Do you have a digital versus print preference for your reading? Or a shelf problem? Or a decorating theme you just can’t agree on? I’d love to hear about it…

Slainte: Did the Irish Really Save Civilization?

One of my favorite history books, Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, is a slim volume that became a national bestseller in the mid-1990s. This is from the back cover copy:

In this entertaining and compelling narrative, Thomas Cahill tells the story of how Europe evolved from the classical age of Rome to the medieval era. Without Ireland, the transition could not have taken place. Not only did Irish monks and scribes maintain the very record of Western civilization — copying manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, while libraries and learning on the continent were forever lost — they brought their uniquely Irish world-view to the task.

If you like audiobooks, try the abridged version with Liam Neeson reading. The way he rolls the names Cuchulainn, Derdriu, and Medb, and the characters and places from the Tain Bo Cuailnge (an early Irish prose epic) off of his native Irish tongue–truly yummy.

As with many popular historical narratives, bona fide historians have objected to Cahill’s scholarship and failure to prove his thesis. To be sure, his subject ranges over several centuries and tends to gloss over certain facts in order to make his point. But like the best storytellers, Cahill lays down the fall of Rome and the rise of Irish Christianity with all the verve of an Irish bard—with many a wink, wink at Irish culture—and, best of all, he invites the reader in to ponder the “what ifs” of history. What if the works of Virgil, Homer, Juvenal, Martial, Ausonius, Cicero, Ovid, and so many other pillars of western and Latinate literature had been lost to book-burning barbarian hordes pillaging Rome and popes uninterested in “classical” interpretations? What does Western Civilization owe to the 7th, 8th, and 9th century scriptoria of Landisfarne, Skellig Michael, Glendalough, Kildare, and Armagh? Fortunately for his argument, Cahill does not hold back in his estimation of the forces at work:

…Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish, and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of the Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down. Beyond that, there would have perished in the west not only literacy but all the habits of mind that encourage thought…
Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies’ heads. Wherever they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile [in continental Europe], they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe.
And that is how the Irish saved civilization.

Though he hammers home this larger impact of monkish diligence, it is through his portraits of St. Patrick, St. Brigid, and the princely monk Columcille that Cahill humanizes the early Irish-Christian efforts to transfer the literature of the ancients to sheepskin books, for posterity. He also makes the case that the Irish were uniquely situated to take on this mission (for one thing, they have plenty of sheep in Ireland!). Finally, he makes short work of the idea of the “ignorant scribe” who unknowingly transcribed the works of the greats by rote:

Beneath a description of the death of Hector on the Plain of Troy, one scribe, completely absorbed in the words he is copying, has written most sincerely: “I am greatly grieved at the above-mentioned death.”

As are we, poor Hector. Thanks to the Irish.

Are there any “what ifs” of history you find particularly intriguing? The Codex (bound book) was considered an advance in technology over the scroll. Can you imagine entire books being copied by hand?