A Month in Books--April 2014--Ellen Jensen Abbott
I am a pretty constant reader. Downloading the Kindle app to my Android sealed the deal. Now I'm reading on line in the grocery store, during my daughter's orthodontist appointments, and while waiting for car pool. Because I am an English teacher in addition to being a writer, I also read for school. Most of the time, I have more than one book going, and this month was no different. I am currently reading four books, having just finished the fifth. Here's the run-down:
For my Advanced British Literature class, I'm reading Dickens' Great Expectations, a book I have loved for years. If you haven't read it, or haven't read it in a while, seek it out. Read it for its laugh out loud humor, its brilliant characterization (Wemmick with his postbox mouth, Jaggers biting his forefinger, Miss Havisham in her tattered wedding dress), and its mostly unlikable main character rendered likable through Dickens' artful present and future narration.
For my Advanced Writing Seminar class, I'm reading The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante. I've read this book four or five times along with my students and gained new insight into the craft of writing stories each time. I particularly appreciate LaPlante's chapters on point of view and dialogue. And for each chapter on craft, she includes one or two stories/essays which illustrate the element of craft she discussed. Even better for writers, she offers two exercises to practice the same craft element. I wish I could say I've written as many exercises as I've read chapters, but whether you're reading or writing, this is a great book to have on your shelf.
Another book on craft I'm currently in the middle of is The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. This book has rocked my world! Friends who have read my fantasy trilogy (Watersmeet, The Centaur's Daughter, and The Keeper) are surprised that I hadn't read The Writer's Journey before because my books reflect a lot of the structures that Vogler discusses. But this just illustrates the brilliance of The Writer's Journey. Vogler takes Joseph Campbell's theories about the Hero's journey described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (which I have read) and translates each step of the journey into a structure for the archetypal Story. My books seem influenced by Vogler because I've read and internalized so many of the stories that Campbell studied as he developed his theory. So if I recognize these story structures on an intuitive level already, why does The Writer's Journey rock my world? Because Volger takes ideas that all of us know and understand and makes them explicit. His discussions of story structure are clear and cogent and well-illustrated by familiar movies. I was floundering in my current WIP when I picked up The Writer's Journey and suddenly I had the tools I needed to think through the structure of my story. I suspect I will keep The Writer's Journey by my bed for years to come.
One of the stories I read that Campbell (and therefore Vogler) discusses is Homer's Iliad, and that brings me to the book I just finished, The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. This is one of those books I picked up on a Kindle sale because it looked good (I'm addicted to Kindle deals). It wasn't good. It was excellent! (And it also turns out that it won the Orange Prize for Fiction.) It's a retelling of the story of the Trojan War from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles best friend, and in the case of Song of Achilles, love. The novel (Miller's first!) is very well researched and stays true to the events in Homer's epic while still bringing lots of fresh ideas to this fascinating relationship. You don't have to be a Homer buff to enjoy reading this compelling, interesting book. (If you are a Homer buff, you’ll love her depiction of Odysseus.)
And finally, I am reading a book that has also been influenced by The Writer's Journey. I know this because it is The Princess of Trelian by Michelle Knudsen, my friend who recommended Vogler to me. I'm only about 100 pages in, but Meg, the main character, has crossed the Threshold to Adventure (in Vogler/Campbell speak) and I'm hooked. This book is the sequel to The Dragon of Trelian, another book I loved, and a good representative of a constant on my reading list—YA Fantasy.
So what's up for next month? Mrs. Dalloway (Woold), Divergent (Roth—I know—I'm late), Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told you About Being Creative (Kleon), and selected poems from The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry: Blake to Heaney. Better charge my Kindle!