Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

It’s not often (or ever) that I come across a new writer I love this much.

This collection of short (and not so short) stories wowed me at every turn, and overwhelmed me with the uniqueness and fresh beauty of the prose.  Her use of language is so creative and lovely, I couldn’t put it down and found myself highlighting sections constantly in my Kindle.

The stories vary in tone and content, but all feature lesbian or bi women as protagonists, and are poignantly powerful at showing the world from a woman’s POV. But even if you’re not particularly interested in feminist writing, the stories are amazing in their own right. AMAZING. One of them, you can (and should) read right here. This story is a list of Law and Order: SVU episode titles, and their descriptions. Yes, you read that right. It is a story told through short episode descriptions that slowly coalesce into a story featuring Benson and Stabler. It is dark, surreal, sad, strange and I couldn’t stop reading it.

That one in particular stuck with me because I’d never considered writing a story in that format. It’s not quite fan fiction, but uses the oppressively violent world of SVU as a backdrop. You get the feeling as episode after episode is listed, that human cruelty is so endless, that they could keep making SVU episodes forever, and never repeat themselves. And you feel the gross, evil of it, and identify with the helplessness as the characters are overwhelmed, and driven mad by their own city.

The other seven stories are just as evocative and memorable, each in their own unique way. I really can’t recommend this collection enough.

I don’t know the last time I’ve been this struck by a new writer. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

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I, Claudius by Robert Graves

This was an interesting and entertaining, though not always very engaging read. Told from the point of view of  Claudius, a stuttering, limping, nephew of the emperor Tiberius.

I have no idea how much of this is historically accurate beyond the births and deaths of these people, but it painted a disgusting picture of the political world in Rome at this time. The book at many points read as a list of murdered people. Anyone who had even a slight bit of integrity or likability was murdered to help Tiberius (and eventually Caligula) stay in power. I feel like Game of Thrones may have been influenced by this kind of history.

In many ways, the greed and paranoia of those in power reminded me of our own political world today. Those in power seem evil in a pathetic, rather than impressive way.

On the down side this is a very historical novel, in that it is more a list of events than a story. The narrator, Claudius, hardly takes any actions himself and is more documenting all the things that happen around him. This makes the story hard to get into at some times.

 

Chekhov, no twist!

I’ve been reading a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov, and am enjoying it immensely. His characters are so bright and clear and amped-up that you can’t help but love or hate them. But more than any of that, I absolutely love the lack of twist endings in his stories.

Anton Chekhov, if you’re not familiar, wrote in the 1880’s and 1890’s, and is considered by many to be the ‘father’ of the short story. And I have to say, I prefer him to most of his offspring. It is hard to describe how refreshing it is to read a story that doesn’t try to rip the rug out from under me in the last sentence every. single. time. A story that says what it’s trying to say, and then ends, without having to manufacture a shock that turns everything you just read on its head, or somehow reverses the meaning of something important. Instead, I get to the end, and it’s over. His stories are not all preamble to some endorphin-triggering key word. They are not just a fuse leading to an explosion. They are enjoyable for themselves.

After reading Chekhov’s stories, I became very aware that today’s short stories, at least in the non-literary genres, are basically distilled twist. If there is not some shock or surprising reveal or reversal at the end, then what is the point of writing it? I fear, is what people think. Well the point, like any writing, is to make someone feel or think or identify or understand something. And there are plenty of things other than surprise that a story can make you feel.

I am learning a lot from these stories, and this is definitely going to affect my own writing in the future. I heavily recommend reading Chekhov to anyone who wants to write short stories!

Lucent Dreaming, issue 1

It’s now up on the website for free! Why haven’t I mentioned this earlier? I don’t know…

check it out here!

Issue 1

and preorder issue 2 while you’re at it!

Welcome to Lucent Dreaming

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Besides being a great story with amazingly developed characters that are intriguing to watch change over the course of the novel (well… most of them change…), this novel pointed out the giant blind spots I have about the world beyond my door step, and has encouraged me to seek out books that feature other cultures and times in history that I know nothing about, which is most of them….

I really loved how distinct the character’s voices were in this. Each chapter is written in first person from the perspective of one of five characters. Sometimes, when resuming in the middle of a chapter, I’d forget who’s chapter it was. I’d only have to listen for a few seconds before I knew, based on the way the characters observed the world around them.

Heartbreaking, entertaining, educational…

Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai

This one was alternatingly intense, uneasy, claustrophobic and funny.

The story takes place in a small Hungarian town where the collective farm has collapsed and the people have no way to make money. They are all looking for a way out, and have placed their faith in a mysterious and charismatic character who may or may not be scamming them. There is also constant rain that has washed out the roads leaving them all trapped.

I loved the way this was written. The long, cramped pages full of texts and long sentences added to the feeling of inevitability and claustrophobia the characters were feeling. There is another layer added at the end, which also makes sense with the style of writing.

 

The effects of formatting

I’ve been reading Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, and it is formatted in an unusual way, in that it is basically a wall of text with no paragraph breaks. While this sounds odd, and annoying to read (it was at first) it gives the words a kind of overwhelmingness, and endless pressure and urgency that really adds to the story.

It’s interesting that the shape of the words can be such a big part of storytelling. The decision to leave out all paragraph breaks, even between dialogue, almost makes you feel trapped inside the text, just like the characters are trapped in the town in the story. The author also uses very long sentences, which makes it hard to stop reading, as if you’re just being dragged along against your will.

What other kinds of text effects do authors use?