A Month in the Country

View from Bear Mountain, NY
View from Bear Mountain, NY

My last book review was The Untouchable, a recommendation from David Coggins. I just finished another of his suggestions, A Month in the Country by J.L Carr. Another non plot-driven book. It’s a trend!

A Month in the Country is a meditation on recovery, life in a small English village in the aftermath of WWI, love and purpose. We learn early on Birkin, our WWI vet, received a commission to uncover and restore a painting in a church in Oxgodby, a small town somewhere in England. Here he uncovers a masterpiece hidden under lime wash and lives with the people of Oxgodby. It’s impossible not to envision and yearn for the rolling hills, wood-burning stoves, afternoon tea, and a pace of life that invites long conversations and slow afternoons.

Birkin suffers from PTSD. He suffers from a severe facial tick and stammer and appears alien to the people in town, because of his war experience and being a Londoner. But the townspeople ease him into their world, bit by bit as the summer passes and the painting on the wall uncovers. He’s invited, overtly and implicitly, to stay and become part of this small town.

Carr masterfully weaves his wonderful description of place into a few storylines and gently introduces questions. What is the painting on the church wall? Who was the master painter? What will his friend, Moon, uncover in his search for a long-lost grave? Will Birkin stay in the village? Will he act on his desires for Mrs. Keach?

One of life’s simple pleasures is a great, short book. The length invites a slower read… perfect for a book about the English countryside. I imagined reading A Month in the Country in front of a fireplace with a pot of tea. Recommended.

Reading Hygiene

Cork, Ireland
Cork, Ireland

In last week’s review of The Untouchable, I mentioned it took almost 90 pages to really get into the novel. This reminded me about reading hygiene and the right way to read.

As a commuter in New York City, I’m always amazed at people reading books on crowded, chin-to-shoulder subway cars or while walking on the street. Or readers that can pick up a book, read a page or two in between phone calls. If these were “easy” books, sure… the latest Grisham or a romance novel. But I always notice the books people read in public, and some of them are quite serious.

I need to follow rules to read successfully. The most important is give serious work the time and attention it deserves. For instance, I couldn’t have read Anna Karenina a page at a time, or for five minutes at night before falling asleep. I hadn’t previously read Tolstoy; the story was in an unfamiliar world and wasn’t plot-driven. I have to block off sections of at least thirty uninterrupted minutes to concentrate on this type of novel. My mind needs that time to get comfortable with the author’s style, to pick up on the more subtle action, and to appreciate how the author is telling the story. Later, once I’m in the book’s world, I can read in smaller chunks.

If the book is longer (like Anna), setting targets helps. I don’t want to feel like these books are a burden. To move through at a good pace, I’ll set page goals for a weekend. One hundred pages, on a non-busy weekend, is reasonable. And enforces the first rule of sitting for good chunks of time to immerse into the story.

Another rule is to read at least two books at once. And they should be different, preferably one fiction and one non-fiction. Right now I’m reading A Month in the Country (fiction) and Death in the High Grass (non-fiction). I can read Death in the High Grass (a book I read fifteen years ago) easily and while groggy… the short, punchy stories are interesting and the writing is clear.

When I read in snippets, I prefer journals. The two physical journals I subscribe to, Adventure Journal and New Maps, are perfect for interstitial reading.

The Untouchable

Cover of The Untouchable
Cover of The Untouchable

A few weeks ago, I wrote about reading recommendations, including two from David Coggins. I hadn’t read the books he listed in his newsletter… on a whim, I bought two, “The Untouchable” by John Banville and “A Month in the Country” by J. L Carr. The Untouchables was fantastic. Banville (who I need to read more) creates a world filled with memorable characters in England before, during and after WW2. It doesn’t check my usual boxes, but the writing overcomes any limitations.

Victor Maskell tells the story of his life as a spy. Not a James Bond type, but as an academic adjacent to upper-crust English society. The story begins with Victor revealing he was outed as a Russian agent but still lives freely in London. A young reporter interviews him about his life for a book and the rest of the story is Victor retelling his past.

I admit, I almost dropped this book twice… after twenty pages, and again after ninety. I couldn’t find the plot or the hook. Those first pages were a mishmash of characters and grievances. The Untouchable violated one of my main tenets… it didn’t have a strong and discernible plot. Rather than putting it down, I committed to fifty pages one weekend. Then I recognized the brilliance of the novel.

Banville, through the device of an elderly man recounting his life as a spy, places the reader in a world swirling with characters. Unlikable people… I can’t think of one character I rooted for or admired. But they were interesting, scheming, opinionated and memorable. A plot evolved through these characters… just hidden a few levels beneath the surface.

Also, hiding below the old stories and characters, was Victor Maskell’s double nature. He’s English and works on the war effort and is a trusted consultant of the King, and a Russian asset. He’s married with children and gay, a member of English society yet an Irish Catholic, etc. This dual nature is present in other characters as well, and, by the end of the book, the title “The Untouchable” also has double meaning.

This is a slow burn of a read, plot-wise. But Banville’s writing is compelling and his characters memorable. Sometimes when I read a book, I can’t wait to finish. I didn’t want “The Untouchable” to end.

More Thoughts on Originality

Tombs of St Michans
Tombs of St Michans

Last week I wrote about originality and the retelling of a classic tale. My current story begs a similar question; when is an idea original? Are there any original ideas?

As per Neil Gaiman’s suggestion, I have a Compost Heap in my writing tool… a collection of incomplete ideas, characters, images, situations for use in a future story. Most of these are a character in a situation. One of my entries described a pill that would fast-forward time. I riffed on the idea and a clear plot and characters followed. Great. But isn’t this covered ground? Hasn’t this concept been beaten to death?

The short answer is yes. Stories about taking pills or treatments that seem too good to be true, with terrible second and third-order consequences aren’t new. And, my premise is the pill doesn’t really fast-forward life… the user just doesn’t experience or remember any of the parts they choose to skip. This is like Severance, where people’s work and private lives are completely separate. But should I care?

While pondering, I remembered a trend I noticed on Song Exploder. Song Exploder is a podcast where artists deconstruct a song they wrote, complete with origin stories and production. Many artists start with a song they liked (to be clear, someone else’s song). And they would riff on it and change the time, add/remove things… and, through a process of revision, create something new.

A sentiment I’ve seen shared many times also applies. “There are no original story ideas, only original ways to tell them.” Basically, the thought is even if a story/idea/situation has been used before… it shouldn’t stop the artist from pursuing the work. Each telling of a story is unique. Only you can tell your story, and since you haven’t told your story before, original and worthwhile.

I still have reservations. Not necessarily because it isn’t original… any story, told truthfully, is unique. But the bar has to be higher… what is it about this story or idea that is so interesting, so different as to make it worthwhile, especially in when so many other versions are out there?

Something Old, Something New

Citi Field, May 2022
Citi Field, May 2022

I re-told a classic story in the “After the Second Wave” world. The original is from Edgar Allan Poe, The Cask of Amontillado. Poe’s narrator lures an enemy into his family catacombs under the guise of inspecting a cask of Amontillado. Once in the catacombs, slightly drunk and coughing badly because of nitrates, the enemy is chained to a wall and entombed while still alive. The tale is spun by a cold, manipulative, and unreliable narrator… very Poe.

Writing a version of this tale in my world was interesting. As written, the story stays true to the original plot. And writing it was… easy? Fun? I didn’t have to spend cycles worrying about what should happen.

Poe’s style bled into my writing. He was from a different era, with a flair for the dramatic, a love of exclamation points and adjectives. In trying to emulate the feel of his narrator, an unstable man who committed a terrible act years ago, I wrote like Poe. It felt natural.. and one character is quite pompous, so this style befits his speech.

After completing a first version of this retelling, I’m worried it’s not interesting enough… and is just a copy, not a re-interpretation. Sure, the details are different, with new characters in a post-apocalyptic future (opposed to the nineteenth-century Italian setting of the original). But it doesn’t have any deviation from the original plot. Does it need… a different, more shocking outcome? When a story is “re-imagined”, how many does it need to deviate to be a unique work?

Often, when a story is said to be re-imagined, it’s just swapping the gender of characters, or setting the story in a different time and place. What is the dividing line… can updated details make the story new, or does the plot and ending have to differ as well?

In the end, I want to revisit this piece after a few weeks or months. I’ll pick up the story new and edit with fresh eyes, rather than trying to match how Poe set up his story.

Finding the Right Headspace, Part 2

Dun Luiche mid-morning
Dun Luiche mid-morning

Part 1

I designed my morning routine to combat context switching. Morning pages allow me to empty my mind. At its best, MP does two things; removes the nonsense swirling around my mind out and onto a page and lets me concentrate on writing. Plot issues are solved, characters embellished, endings proposed… while letting the pen move constantly, stream-of-motion style.

In Daily Rituals, How Artists Work, solitary time for creators was nearly universal, as was a distinct separation between writing work and other items (most of these were artists from another era… they spent a lot of time on correspondence and mail). One example, the composer Gustav Mahler, stuck with me. Mahler was maniacal about silence…

“He woke at 6:00 or 6:30am and immediately rang for the cook to prepare breakfast… which the cook carried to Mahler’s stone composing hut in the woods. (Mahler could not bear to see of speak to anyone before settling down to work in the morning, so the cook had to take a steep, slippery path to the hut rather than the main walkway, in order to risk not running into him)” (Daily Rituals, page 42)

Of course, Mahler is extreme… but I understand the urge. The longer you can keep out the noise of everyday life, the more your mind can create.

The return of hectic life has dominated the morning pages as well. Sometimes I can’t get through the nonsense banging around in my head before I finished my two pages (I get 850 words into two large pages… MP says three pages but 850 is the target). This is when my mind wanders to the imaginary cabin in the woods, maybe with a light snowfall, a wood-burning stove and fireplace and no internet or cell reception. Though I suspect I’d find plenty of things to obsess over in seclusion as well… schedules or food or feeling the urge to spend more time hiking or enjoying nature instead of cranking on stories.

Finding the Right Headspace

Dun Luiche, the mists of Donegal
Dun Luiche, the mists of Donegal

Currently, in mid-September, my great mojo has ebbed. The book project and writing are still top priorities; what changed? Just the calendar.

September is the return of school and sports for my children and the official kick-off of the busy season at work. It’s exciting and fun and exhausting. My morning writing time is safe (I’ve engineered my life to allow for at least 45 minutes most mornings for pecking away at the keyboard). Now this time feels rushed, like another task in a very long list.

Programming and writing share common attributes. Both are creative and need planning and, well writing (it’s called “writing” code). And the head space required for doing this work (Cal Newport calls it Deep Work, others call it flow) is the same. When I wrote code daily, I sought deep concentration where the minutes and hours would fly by while I locked into the problem. Same with writing… my best work comes when I know what the story is doing and let the words rip. I rarely have a lyrical writing style, but in these states, the words pick up a distinct rhythm.

The biggest blocker to entering this Deep Work/Flow state? There are a few, such as not being in a good place, distractions, insecurity, or lack of direction. But my biggest blocker is context switching. When I wrote code, it was hard to go from meetings or conversations about larger topics, big objectives, etc. to worrying how to set up a web form and optimize the database connection. It is the same with writing.

I hoped setting up my primary writing time in the early morning, before I open my work email or confront pressing home issues, would reduce the shifts. This month, I find my thoughts upon wake-up, focus on work and home items. To-do lists, meetings, workpeople and their reactions, college applications, evening driving schedules, soccer and band performances. I’m starting the day in one head space and trying to shift over to a creative zone for writing. In the summer, I wouldn’t wake up with these thoughts. I reflected on my dreams and quickly thought about characters and writing.

Part 2

Recommended Recommendations, Part 2

New Grange, Ireland
New Grange, Ireland

Read Part 1

Podcasts are another source of book recommendations. They often feature an author pushing a current non-fiction book. It is easy to ignore these, especially when the guest is a business leader sharing their career or investing advice… these podcasts have become so tiresome I usually skip them altogether. But I do like when interesting guests recommend their favorite books; the way they enthusiastically describe why they love a certain book is infectious and I often check out said book at once. Or the author themself… I had heard of Neil Gaiman before hearing him on the Tim Ferris Show but never watched or read any of his work. Tim strongly recommended the audio version of The Graveyard Book… which was magical. Since then I’ve read and watched a ton of his work and tried, unsuccessfully, to write something in the vein of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Any recommendation from the host carries more weight; as a listener, I already agree with their taste. One of my favorites is Marginal Revolution with Tyler Cowen (a super-smart economist and polyglot). He, through his daily blog posts and podcast often discusses books he likes and reads. Tyler is on another level, though… I can’t read with his speed, focus, or ability to wade through dense text. So I know I can’t blindly follow his recommendations… the last one I followed was for a non-traditional book, Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks.. (side note, one of his recommendations is not to skip big picture books as they are often fun, enlightening and artistically done). From a different of blogger/podcaster, David Coggins, I’ve purchased three of his personal recommendations in the last few months. Everyday Drinking disappointed… it’s a collection of newspaper articles and is fairly repetitious. And very dated (which I thought would charm, but it really takes away from the work). I thought it’d be a treatise, and it’s more of a how-to manual. I have higher hopes for two other recommendations, The Untouchable and A Month in the Country. When I read them, I will post brief reviews to my Now page.

Other forms of entertainment lead to recommendations as well. I read the SOIAF (Game of Thrones) books after watching season one. I had read David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten when it first came out… but not until Cloud Atlas was released in the theaters that I picked up on his name again and went back into his work. Another combination recommendation was reading Adventures in the Screentrade by William Goldman. I had heard it mentioned many times on the Bill Simmons Rewatchables, but only thought it worth reading after re-watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Friends and family are another source. I certainly recommend a lot of books to people in my life, and I have a few people who reach out when they read something interesting or discover a new author. Some of the most off-beat books I’ve read have come through this channel. An old coworker recommended The Dice Man and The Power of One. I wouldn’t have found those books on my own.

Recommended Recommendations

St Patrick
St Patrick

Part 1

I read a surprisingly disappointing book and reflected on how strong the recommendation was for the book. This disconnect made me ask; where do I get my reading list? A few sources… classic, ye-old “must read” lists. Recommendations from writing books. Podcasts and friends. And a broad, other category that includes movies and shows.

I’ve read books on most must-read classics lists (reading Anna Karenina, based on seeing Tolstoy listed for years). Depending on the list (especially US centric lists) I’ve read maybe thirty percent. These lists are useful because they are evergreen, unlike so many other lists (“New York Times Editors Recommend This Month! Today! Right Now!”) that reflect current trends or hot authors… or release cycles. Instead, these lists contain books that stood the test of time. I wouldn’t read the entire list; sometimes books appear for the wrong reason. I remember selecting from a list of classics in junior year of high school. I selected The Jungle by Upton Sinclair because I recognized the title. Only after I finished (and didn’t enjoy) did my English teacher note it wasn’t a great work of literature… it was “important” because it exposed working conditions in stockyards, which led to a ponderous treaty at the end of the book about workers’ rights and socialism. Other classics seem unappealing… Jane Austen, etc. I remember hating Dickens in high school, although I’ve read so many glowing descriptions of his work I may have to revisit (can I trust my fourteen-year-old self’s take on an author?)

An added benefit to the classics is free content for analyzing the story. I’ve listened to a few podcasts that discuss Anna Karenina. Earlier this year, on my Hemingway short story jag, I’d read a story and search the title for analysis to make sure I was getting the full picture. It added to the experience.

Another avenue is writing about writing. On the non-fiction side, many of the books I’ve read on writing were recommendations from authors like War of Art, On Writing, etc. Most interesting are the literature recommendations. But the most useful, in recent memory, came from George Saunders as part of A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and accompanying Substack. We read short stories he provides… none of which I would have read on my own. And he de-mystified the Russian masters and made them approachable and… fun? I picked up a lot of recommendations from interviews with authors as well; I have the Paris Review author interview series. Authors, especially those from post-war through the eighties, discuss their contemporaries and the people they read and admire. Ended up with books from John Cheever and others this way.

Part 2

Updates on Everything Writing

Donegal Town
Donegal Town

I’ve been in a good groove for the past few months, writing and editing my upcoming short story collection, “After the Second Wave.” It’s given me great focus and I love writing the stories. I want to create a collection of interconnected stories set in the same world, but where each story could stand on its own.

The collection should contain roughly seven stories with an extra story or two. The extra stories could be bonus pieces or maybe an addendum… they won’t involve main characters but set in the same world. I’m enjoying the ease with additional story ideas are flowing… I could write twenty stories for the collection.

Which leads to a good mix of daily writing options. Five days a week on new words for ASW. One to two days on blog posts. And one to two days (apologies for my Yogi Berra math) on what I call major edits… edits that require re-writing, not tweaking. If I’m tired or feeling burned out, I’ll hit the backlog of George Saunders lessons and exercises. Everything seems fresh and I can’t wait to get started in the morning.

As part of putting together ASW, I’m working with an editor. She is fantastic and full of great ideas and feedback… and is a professional and knows what to do about publishing and pulling a book together. I produce a short story every few weeks for her to review and receive a marked-up story. This has a pleasant flow and provides one of the key elements I’ve been missing since I started writing; real, honest (and professional) feedback. And I have a partner to help put the project together.

In addition, I am giving this website more attention. I’d like to evolve it to not only a home for my writing and thoughts, but a hub for books and a way to collect and attract readers… getting more people to read my work is the primary goal. Improvements to the site will include (non-annoying) collection of emails for newsletters and behind-the-scenes work to spiff up how it appears to the world.

The missing part is getting work published in journals. I went a long time (most of this year) without submitting. But that game is as much about volume as quality and I need to make up for lost time. Haven’ found any go-to publications, but hope to soon.

Last, I’m back to reading the classics. As I’ve mentioned before, I never read the Russian masters before working through GS’s A Swim In the Pond in the Rain. His selected examples of Russian masters were approachable and fun, so I picked up Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. So far, I’m enjoying the writing/prose. I’m trying to find other, interesting books to read at the same time… but the point is, I’m reading challenging classics. Hopefully, a little bit will rub off on my writing.