Have a Bookish New Year too!
Paula S. Jordan
Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
But not so.
There was a real live, er, undead one in Rhode Island, with a really eerie grave where no grass grows and the tomb stone “must be anchored down by a steel post.” Or so goes the story. Coins, shells, rocks, even printed prayers, have been left there as gifts for 19 year-old Mercy Lena Brown.
Mercy died in the deep winter of 1892 and her body was stored in an above-ground tomb until the ground thawed enough to bury her. When suspicions of vampires arose, Mercy’s body and those of her also recently deceased mother and sister were exhumed. The decayed condition of the other two bodies was enough to acquit them. But Mercy’s, having lain only two months in the freezing, above-ground tomb, was in perfect condition. It was reported, in fact, that she still had fresh blood in her veins. Proof positive that she was “feeding off the living.” So they cut out her heart and burned it on a stone.
In another instance, the body of a 50 year old man, buried around 1830 in Connecticut, was “completely rearranged” some time after death. The skeleton was beheaded, the ribs fractured, and the head laid on the chest with the thigh bones crossed beneath it as on a pirate flag.
And they weren’t the only ones. Rhode Island Folklorist Michael Bell has exhumed some 80 “questionable” burials, some from as early as the late 1700’s or as far west as Minnesota, but primarily in backwoods New England in the1800’s. He suspects there are many more.
But what raised such powerful suspicions among the good people of New England?
Turns out, the one linking factor among all the known disturbed burials is that they occurred around the time of virulent outbreaks of consumption (tuberculosis.)
People falling ill without explanation? Wasting away till death claimed them?
What would you think?.
P.S. It’s been suggested that one Bram Stoker, traveling in the United States with a theater company the same year as Mercy Lena Brown’s exhumation, may have taken note: Lena + Mercy = Lucy??? And a doctor attending at her exhumation as with Miss Brown’s?
P.P.S. H.P Lovecraft specifically mentions Mercy’s exhumation in “The Shunned House,” and includes a living character named Mercy.
Extensive analysis and commentary here:
The Great New England Vampire Panic, Smithsonian, October 2012
Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
When Ursula Le Guin revisited Earthsea some years after her completion of Tehanu, as she explains in her Foreword to Tales from Earthsea:
A mere glimpse at the place told me that things had been happening while I wasn’t looking. It was high time to go back find out what was going on now … [and also about] … things that had happened back then, before Ged and Tenar were born. A good deal about Earthsea, about wizards, about Roke Island, about dragons, had begun to puzzle me ….
And so, as she put it, she went back, “to spend some time in the Archives of the Archipelago.” The five luminous stories that resulted shed a few bright rays on the people and the forces that unmade and remade and reoriented the world of Earthsea during the 300 years before Ged. They are told in that quiet Le Guin voice that contains the raging of the storm. The calm that is the storm
“The Finder,” recounts the time after “Elfarran and Morred perished and the Isle of Soléa sank beneath the sea,” after further depredations from warlords and self-serving mages and wild dragons out of the west, after Erreth-Akbe’s Ring of Runes was broken. In that dark time the safest and most reliable magic rested with the “Women of the Hand,” long forgotten in Ged’s time, and with a Finder named Otter, a man who, with the women of the heavily-warded enclave on Roke, began to build the future.
“The Bones of the Earth” gives insight into the selfless strength and generosity of the true mage, and of the sorcerers who would teach the sorcerer who would teach Ged.
“Darkrose and Diamond” tells of the love between two gifted people and the trials they face in times when such gifts were both coveted and suspect.
“On the High Marsh,” from the “brief but eventful six years” when Ged was Archmage of Earthsea, tells the story of a child whose great powers were so harshly misunderstood and repressed that even on Roke he could not be mended, and of the one who went alone and on foot to find him in yet another place of ignorance to which he had run.
The final story, “Dragonfly,” occurring a few years after the end of Tehanu, introduces a powerful new character and provides a bridge, “a dragon bridge” as Le Guin says, between that book and the next one, the masterful novel The Other Wind.
Tales concludes with a 23-page “Description of Earthsea,” filled with details and explanations for much of the world of Le Guin’s creation. Close readers of her stories will revel in this. And for writers aspiring to Le Guin-quality fantasy, there are riches to be found in the Foreword: about “the way one does research into nonexistent history,” and the importance of stories that “have weight and make sense.” You’ll want to read it. Over and over again.
The Other Wind reaches back, nearly to the dawn of history, to identify and address the greatest wrong ever done by the mages of Earthsea. This ancient miscalculation, a colossal failure of magic, comes to light through the heartbreak of a sorcerer named Alder, whose young wife calls to him from across the low wall between the living world and the realm the dead. What can be done to mend this vast error and make right the harm it has caused? And who has the power for the task? Tenar, Tehanu, the young king Arren, the former Archmage Ged, and Irian, a dragon who can take the shape of a woman, gather in the Immanent Grove on Roke, to try.
It was in reading the Tales From Earthsea this past week that I felt the whole of this long, patient story wash over me, the slow gathering together of whose parts Le Guin has pursued over these thirty-one years. It is a simple story, seen whole: a world of sometimes rough, sometimes marvelous beauty, populated by a people of rich imagination and great but often flawed intention, who insist on the superiority of their own limited vision over the deep-rooted wisdom and power of the natural world around them.
So, is there more of Earthsea’s story yet to come?
Le Guin tells us in the new Afterword provided in the 2012 edition of The Other Wind that, so far as she knows, “the story that [she] had to tell ends here.” And yet, she says, she knows what Tehanu will do, and where Ged will go now.
For this series of posts there is definitely more: the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin. The Dispossessed, which many consider her masterwork, and my favorite, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Always Coming Home. And more? We shall see.
Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
So begins A Wizard of Earthsea, volume one of The Earthsea Trilogy, and so began my readerly friendship with Ursula K. Le Guin. The trilogy was perhaps my first deep insight into that amalgam of dreams and imperfections that is the human condition. It is a permanent fixture of my heart.
There have been periods since that first experience when I did not read Le Guin’s books, and periods when I did, so my experience of her is spotty. But I can tell you that I have, in one way or another, been informed, deeply moved, and emotionally strengthened by every work of hers that I have read.
As many of you undoubtedly know, Wizard is the insightful coming-of-age story of Ged, known as Sparrowhawk, a gifted boy whose pride would lead him into such troubles as would last through the Trilogy and shadow his magic for life. The book is filled with whimsy and hope and learning and deepest despair, and again hope, in the heart of a much wiser young man.
The Tombs of Atuan, volume two of the Trilogy, is that rarity, the coming-of-age story of a girl. Taken from her home and family as a small child, Tenar was dedicated for a life as high priestess to the “ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth.” And so she served, until a young wizard named Ged came as a thief in search of the greatest treasure of the Tombs she guarded.
In The Farthest Shore, volume three of the Trilogy, an older Ged has risen to become the Archmage of Roke, the most powerful wizard of an Earthsea from which the magic seemed to be fading away. Together with the young Crown Prince Arren, and Kalessin, Eldest of the dragons, Ged travels across the world to “confront his own past, and test the ancient prophecies.” With them also sail Earthsea’s every hope.
It seems clear at the conclusion of The Farthest Shore, completed in 1972, that Le Guin thought she was done with Ged. But Ged, it seems, or perhaps Earthsea itself, was far from done with her. Some 18 years later both Ged and Tenar are back, with Tehanu, a foster child of strange and violent origins, who would add her own indelible brush strokes to the evolving portrait of Earthsea and its inhabitants. If the original Trilogy was–and was not–a tale for children, Tehanu is a story for those same children grown, not old, but older. Ready for another course in wisdom.
Once again, a decade after Tehanu, Earthsea had more work for its historian and gazetteer. Unfortunately I cannot comment on Tales From Earthsea. Not just yet. For though I have read The Other Wind, the most recent (note that I did not say the final) book in the Cycle, I have not yet read the Tales. So I will save the fifth and sixth books in the Cycle for next week, after I have read it.
Following that, I will proceed with brief looks, in varying depths, at the other books of Ursula Le Guin on my shelf.
In the meantime, if you haven’t read Tehanu, or the Trilogy itself, I recommend that you do. The elegantly slim volumes of the Trilogy read rather quickly. But Tehanu is a full length novel, requiring and deserving your extended attention. You won’t regret it.
Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
The post on the writings of Ursula Le Guin which I intended to have for you today is still in the works and will appear here next week. Meanwhile, a distillation of the writer, her mind, and her craft.
Le Guin photo credits:
Below the headline: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/ArwenCurryDocumentary.html
At middle left: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/ArwenCurryDocumentary.html
Copyright 2014 by Paula S, Jordan
It isn’t often that a genre writer is recognized with a prestigious literary award. So when it happens, any SF/F bookish blog worth its pixels should take note.
And so it is noted here, with endless respect for the author and gratitude for her work, that Ursula Kroeber LeGuin is to be presented the 2014 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
The award was created in 1988 to recognize a lifetime of literary achievement and has previously been awarded to Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and Toni Morrison, along with some 23 other authors, including Eudora Welty, David McCullough, John Updike, Joan Didion, and E.L. Doctorow.
Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) report that Ms LeGuin has been named this year’s honoree in recognition of, among other accomplishments: “… her transformative impact on American literature,” saying that “ …for more than forty years she has defied conventions of narrative, language, character, and genre, and transcended the boundaries between fantasy and realism to forge new paths for literary fiction.”
She is the past recipient of numerous other awards, including the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction, and a Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, plus 21 Locus Awards, 6 Nebulas, 5 Hugos, 3 Asimov’s Readers Awards, a Pushcart Prize, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and a Newbery Silver Medal plus many other honors.
Ms, LeGuin’s blog, biography, bibliography and much more may be found at her web site.
The National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner will be held on November 19, in New York City. Neil Gaiman will present the award.
Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
You might think of this post as a book review trailer, an early comment about a great read that will get more detailed examination sometime soon. Because it deserves it.
It is also a hint to writers looking for the secret to satisfying character creation and development: Read this book. This is the way it should be done.
There is no science fiction or fantasy about Jazz Funeral, by Julie Smith, only the magic of New Orleans and Jazz and the mysteries and foibles of the human soul in all its imperfection.
Ms. Smith’s infinite knowledge and talented depiction of human nature, aided and abetted by an unwavering devotion to honesty mellowed by endless sympathy, have produced here a tour de force: the most massively dysfunctional extended family I have ever run across in literature or out.
What is this family like? Occasionally loving, but most often consciously, stunningly cruel. Variously talented. Greedy, but occasionally giving. Or, poignantly, emphatically not all those things, but creative, generous souls too young or too insecure to escape the emotional tyranny of the family long enough to discover the never-normal but at least more normal world of New Orleans just outside.
It is important to note that each of the major elemental forces in this perfect human storm gets his or her moment of clarity, the revelation of causes (redemptive or not) where we readers may glimpse the reasons why, and occasionally the seeds of a more generous humanity waiting for one spot of sunlight to show them the way out.
I hasten to explain that there is much more to this book than the conflicts suggested here. There are imminently readable elements of love and laughter and friendship, as well as the mystery and suspense of unsolved murder.
Also, like the prize at the bottom of the box, there is Skip Langdon, a sterling, six-foot-plus, somewhat over-weight, female New Orleans police detective. Skip has her own complications, of course, but along with them come the skills and the heart to sort out at least most of this mess.
And over, under, around, and through it all are the incomparable, worldly-wise strains of New Orleans Jazz.
Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
Finishing that first draft of your first novel is a genuinely splendid moment in a writer’s life. Enjoy it while it lasts. Because once your hard-earned champagne is drunk, another, less happy mood is likely to take its place.
It’s called ‘terror,’ and it can be summed up in five words (more, with appropriate expletives): “What the blanketty blank do I do now!?”
The answer to that Cri de Coeur involves a number of useful terms which most any writer at that point of experience already knows. But all of which, you now learn, require more detailed instruction:
“Wait. Hold on,” I hear someone saying. “That word, just before ‘edit’. Structure? It makes it sound like you’re building something.”
Good for you!
Structure is the thing that gives your novel shape, that arranges the logical, carefully planned, tension-building and ultimately tension-relieving chain of events that keeps your reader flicking (or clicking) through the pages till half-past late-for-work.
There are several useful structures to choose from:
The 5-Act structure (Shakespeare liked this one): [1)exposition, 2) complication or rising action, 3) first climax or crisis, 4) resolution or falling action, 5) final climax and resolution.]
The 7-Act structure: like the 5-Act structure but with an extra climax and an extra falling action in the middle, Obviously it makes a somewhat different diagram!
The Six-Act Two-Goal structure: where the protagonist achieves the initial goal, finds that it isn’t adequate to the need, and sets out to achieve a better one
Oh yes, and The Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot. You’ll want to read this one for yourself.
And there are many more.
It does take some effort to get the best results from any of these structures, as well as from the other tasks I’ve mentioned. Fortunately the details are easy to find. Just Google the general topic or question, or ask at your nearby library or bookstore, to find all the sources you need.
Of course, once you have all that down pat, along comes the correcting and refining and polishing and beta reading, and correcting and polishing some more. That’s what the rest of the drafts are for.
But don’t despair.
There is a legend — and I’ve spoken to several writers who swear it’s true — that beyond all that toil and struggle, when your book is finally on its way into the world to wreck the work habits of readers everywhere, finishing that last draft is even more delicious than the first.
*World building, character development, spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc, etc all those other necessary things that never get done well enough in the first draft.
Additional image credits:
Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
There are plenty of ways to research a novel at arm’s length: Internet, libraries, books, conversations with practicing professionals. But sometimes you have to step in a little closer, get your hands on the real thing.
For some time now, that real thing for me has been a living, thinking octopus, the basis for several characters in my present-day alien-contact novel-in-progress.
I had read about these wily animals, seen video evidence of their astonishing feats of camouflage and intelligence, and asked about a zillion questions of patient professionals. Still I needed to know what the critter felt like. How slippery or squishy or cold might those eight arms be? And how tightly might those suckers grip? What would their skin, with its quick-changing colors and textures, actually look like? How might I feel, looking into the eyes of an octopus that was looking back at me?
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, it happened. Big “Thank you!” to the Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.
I first saw the large, reddish Great Pacific Octopus clinging suckers-out onto the thick glass of his tank in the aquarium’s Hall of Fishes. Those suckers were impressive, but it was hard to tell from that tangle of arms just what he looked like, and certainly no way I could reach in for a quick handshake.
Wandering out to the seaside plaza, I found a dozen or more middle-schoolers petting the residents of a tide-pool aquarium. When I asked, one of the staffers on duty there pointed me to a sea cucumber as the next best thing to touching an octopus. So I too, the oldest kid in the bunch, reached into the chilly water and touched carefully, as directed, with no more than two fingers. Cold and soft and squishy the sea cucumber certainly was, and not too slippery for comfort.
But friends, he wasn’t an octopus.
Meanwhile, back in the Hall of Fishes, my husband had arranged a visit with the real thing. Yay! Jenn Moffitt, a trained marine biologist and the aquarium’s Director of Husbandry, ushered us into the dark space behind the scenes. She emphasized that it is never wise to handle any animal without proper training. Then she removed a panel from the lip of a tank, and there, in a wash of blue light, was the big guy himself.
I touched his arm, holding only the lower end of it as Jenn directed, felt it slide between my fingers, felt the surprising strength of even the smaller suckers near the tip. His flesh was a bit firmer to the touch than the sea cucumber’s, colder too. And really slippery. This is good, among other things, for sliding free of an attacker’s grasp while still holding tight with his suckers to whatever he wants. Another theory suggests that it keeps his boneless arms from tangling into knots. Well, maybe.
Some color shift was subtly discernible, even under the blue light, and Jenn pointed out 1-to-2-inch triangular extrusions on his head. These, she said, seem to appear when he is thinking. When she touched one of them I was surprised at how easily it flexed, not at all the rigid structure it appeared. Hmn. Interesting insight into the tricks of this master of disguise.
Sadly, I never quite achieved an eye-to-eye with him, and our visit was done.
Maybe next time.
We left him to his unimaginable thoughts.
Thank you, Jenn.
For me, no one role model could ever be enough. You need different ones for different undertakings. Hence my committee.
The first is personal, my grandmother, Mary Catherine Foster Stahls. Born only 15 years after the end of the civil war (she was more the age of a great grandmother for me) she saw nearly ninety years of the most rapid change in history. Though she never held a “job” she could do anything.
Grow anything. Sew, quilt, or reupholster anything. Repair anything. Build — or oversee the building of — almost anything. In my memory’s eye she usually holds a hammer.
For feminism, the lady is Margaret Brent, first feminist and first woman to ask for the right to vote in the western hemisphere. That was in Maryland (where she was the governor’s attorney) in1648, 40 years after the founding of Jamestown. They said no.
For courage, Sojourner Truth. Fearless. Best-known conductor on the underground railroad. A judge, demanding proof that she was a woman, once ordered her to show her breasts in court. She stood tall, and proud, and with great dignity opened her dress and showed him.
Barbara Jordan, for oratory and for legal scholarship. She should have been the first woman on the Supreme Court.
Kate Hepburn, for talent, style, and sheer guts. The woman knew who the hell she was.
Sally Ride. First American woman in space.
Kate Chopin, for courage in authorship. It isn’t true, though commonly believed in Louisiana, that all available copies of her novel The Awakening were collected and burned in New Orleans sometime around 1900. However, as “[one of the] first American authors to write truthfully about women’s hidden lives,” her book was widely condemned, called morbid, vulgar, and disagreeable. Willa Cather said it was “trite and sordid.” It has been removed from more than one library’s shelves and
challenged even in recent years. Yet today the book is available world wide, in translations including Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, and Galician. And a new one out soon in Turkish.
Ursula LeGuin, for insight, excellence, productivity, and durability.
And finally, as a role model for late-blooming artists of every discipline, my patron saint, Grandma Moses.
So, who’s on your Role Model Committee?