Monday Muse: My Weirdness

I have a weird brain.

OK, I think most of us do. After all, our brains are entirely unique to us as individuals; no one else is the same, so there can’t really be a brain that isn’t weird. We can be weird in the same way and call it ‘normal’, but it’s just a collection of weird we’ve decided is the usual sort of weird, and is therefore the norm. Or none of that made sense and I have just proven to you how ridiculous I really am.

I have a tendency to overthink things. Introspection isn’t simply my middle name, it’s the language of my creation. I want to know why things are. But only to a certain extent. Which is weird, I guess. I genuinely want an answer. It’s not the pondering I like; it’s the chance to come to a conclusion that I find satisfactory. Conclusions around which I can build my identity. I am very careful about coming to conclusions because I know that changing them means a rebuilding of myself. A restructuring of my world. That being said, new facts are new facts; I can’t ignore them just because they aren’t what I want them to be.

It is with this in mind that I dug into my… just not being into Station Eleven, the book A paired on Friday and which she lent to me some time ago because she really enjoyed it and we, in general, have very similar tastes. I have tried several times to read it because there have definitely been times a book was hard for me to get into that I ended up adoring when I finally finished it. (Same with television. As I write this, I’m wearing a Bob’s Burgers shirt. It took me four tries to get into the show, and I am now one of its most fervent disciples.) But… I can’t get into this one. And, being the person I am, I wanted to know why.

See… thing is, on the surface, it seems like the perfect book for me. A wandering theater troupe maintaining cultural identity following a cataclysm through, in essence, Shakespeare? Many storylines all coming together? It seemed like it would be a quick read for me; the kind of thing I pick up and then finish a day later having not slept or remembered to shower. And I wanted to like it. I wanted to be able to talk to A about it and use its structure as an example of how we wanted to structure Talentless.

But I couldn’t.

And I really couldn’t figure out why. Until it hit me:

With only a few exceptions, I do not like modern literary fiction. On the whole, in the main, by and large, and with the aforementioned few exceptions, I have never finished a literary novel that wasn’t written prior to the 1950s. And even then, the only exceptions are F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway (himself a HUGE outlier for reasons I’ll discuss later). And those I have finished and enjoyed have an element of fantasy in them or are more accurately called historical fiction.

Why is this? I don’t know. I should, on paper, like them. I just went on (check out Saturday’s post) about the rhythm I like in stories. I’m not one for the sparse, staccato, fast-paced style that propels people forward without giving them a chance to settle into a scene and breathe. For the most part, I do not like thrillers or “action-packed” stories (you know the kind I mean). I like beautiful language. I like when it’s obvious the writer chose every single word with care, or if they didn’t, wrote in a way that makes it clear they are simply a person of great erudition. If a writer can make me turn to a dictionary even once, they automatically go on my list of writers I want to read again. (This is why Hemingway is such an outlier for me.)

But I do not like modern literary fiction. Including literary genre fiction (which sounds like it’s an oxymoron, but it isn’t– Station Eleven is, technically, sci-fi, but it belongs in the fiction section, not the SFF, and the way it’s written places it firmly in the literary category). And the only reason I could come up with was… I didn’t like the way it is written. (Also, I don’t really like science-fiction, either. I know… I’m so picky.) Because, while I’ve never been interested in the kind of literary fiction that’s about small down families with dark secrets (and its ilk), Station Eleven is not that. So…

Why?

I’m reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House right now. Arguably, it’s denser. It’s got less… genre in it than Station Eleven. It’s got loving descriptions of houses and London and people, which is normally the stuff I skip (I’m a dialogue girl at heart). But I forgive it, and I even enjoy it. In Station Eleven, my eye skipped over it. If I had to read about flowers or whatever one more time, I was going to throw the book at the wall (which, since it’s not my book, I didn’t have the luxury of doing). Somehow, to me, Dickens (even though he was literally writing as many words as possible so he would get paid more) was clearer, more direct, and more evocative than anything in Station Eleven. Where the descriptions in Bleak House seemed necessary, they felt more like a chance to show off how good the writing is in Station Eleven.

But whyWHY is that the case? What is the difference between what Dickens is doing, or Austen, or George Eliot (OK, maybe not Eliot, who’s a better writer than pretty much any of us will ever be) and what Mandel (the writer of Station Eleven) is doing? I know why I prefer fantasy–that’s a plot thing, as I find fantasy far more engrossing than general fiction–but why is it that the things I love in classical literature are the things that turn me off of modern literary fiction? And, for that matter, why is it that Lord of the Rings doesn’t bother me? Yes it’s fantasy, but Tolkien spends what feels like 20 chapters describing a ring. Why is it I can barely handle four or five paragraphs about the weather and landscape in a modern novel, but I can breeze through Tolkien like it’s light poolside reading?

I don’t know. Perception, I guess. My weird brain telling me they’re different. Maybe it’s the way the writers of the classics (and look at what my absolute favorite “classical” writers have in common: they’re all British, so maybe that means something) combine their words. Maybe it’s the historical factor, since I’m always going to like something if everyone involved is long dead than if they’re still living (in another few years, I’ll suddenly find myself really into WW2 in a way I never was before). I don’t know.

But I’m kind of upset that I didn’t like the book my Bestie recommended. And I’m upset that I can’t figure out why.

Do you think the fact that my favorite fantasy author (Neil Gaiman) is also British? Or that the author of my favorite book in the last couple of years (Daniel O’Malley, who wrote The Rook) is Australian? Maybe I just really don’t like American and Canadian authors as much.

Who knows.

Which bothers me.

C

Shakespeare Saturday: Algorithms!

OK. I’m a huge nerd. I freely cop to this. Nerd Cactus is a very appropriate moniker for our endeavor, obviously. So when there’s a chance for me to combine my love of words, sounds, and algorithms (as long as I don’t have to write them), I get excited. Understanding the science, for lack of a better word, of why language works sometimes and not others is a genuinely fascinating endeavor. I’m convinced that the reason I’m having a hard time finding books to read is that the rhythm of modern writing is too quick, too staccato for my tastes. I like sentences that have room to breathe, or at least those that take their time.

I like legato. A lot of what’s coming out today is quick, meant to move the eye and the mind and keep the pages turning. Edge-of-your-seat writing for edge-of-your-seat stories. But I don’t like to sit at the edge of my seat; it’s uncomfortable, and I can’t sprawl there. The reason I love my couch so much is I can sink into it, legs crossed and cushions enveloping me. I like to read the same way.

Algorithms, guys! There’s a science to the way words work, to the way sounds come together to form stories. Poetry and music are not far off. Rap and poetry and Shakespeare are not that different from one another. So…

I lost the transition there. Just check this out! See what I mean! It’s fun. And it’s Shakespeare-adjacent, so it counts!

C

Boozy Books: Station Eleven

Hey everybody! Sorry for my absence last week. My show closed and final weekends are usually hectic. Plus, I almost met Trevor Noah, but missed him because I kind of had to go on for the finale… Blah. I did wave and blow him a kiss. Both of which were returned. *Fangirl squeal*

Anyway, I had to go back in my reading journal to figure out what I hadn’t covered yet and I cannot believe I didn’t pair Emily St. John’s Station Eleven! It’s really wonderful, you guys. Of the books I’ve read so far this year (the count stands at 15, btw), this is my favorite. I don’t really know what genre it would go under because it’s sort of post-apocalyptic, but it somehow doesn’t have that dreary dystopian feel to it. It’s beautifully written, jumping between timelines and characters in a way that – for many authors – usually comes across as confusing and overly ambitious, but by gosh this story is so perfectly interwoven and well-structured I couldn’t put it down.

It begins with a play – King Lear to be exact – in a time much like ours where electricity and running water are the norm. As an actor dies onstage so too do dozens of people infected with the Georgia Flu, an outbreak that is on the verge of taking out 90% of humanity. This book imagines a world in which cars, trains, and planes do not run, in which electricity is a myth of the past, and Shakespeare remains the greatest link to civilization (now you see why I liked this book so much). 

There are a handful of wonderful characters that track the changes faced by those who lived through the Georgia Flu, with the central plot revolving around a traveling symphony that brings music and Shakespeare from territory to territory. Kirsten Raymonde is the central character, an actress who performed in a production of Lear at a young age before the end.

Honestly, it’s a difficult book to explain, because it has lots of wonderful throughlines that intersect unexpectedly, delivering a story that is about the persistence of humanity and art above all. Please read and enjoy. It’s gorgeous.

As for the pairing… Go for a simple, local wine. It resonates with the story, drinking something that comes from your area and is probably made in small batches. There’s still some alcohol after the fall of civilization, but I guarantee you there won’t be as wide a selection as there is at Total Wine. 

Happy reading!

A

Boozy Books: No Book, Just Booze

HELP ME.

Seriously. HELP ME.

I have made a huge mistake. Well… no, maybe not a mistake. But I don’t have a book to pair for you this week. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll have one for you until the end of June at this rate.

So. Hot on the heels of my month-long competition (congrats, Anne!), I decided I might as well continue this trend of reading the classics while my brain is in the right place to “get” it. You guys know what I mean, right? There’s a difference between reading the latest poolside thriller and the books of yesteryear, you know? The language is different and the stories are told differently, so of course we need to interact… differently. And I figured that my brain was already in the right place for the classics, so I decided to tackle the one writer I thought high school had ruined for me forever:

Charles Dickens.

Now. He’s not the only author I loathed back in school. Far from it. Heck, I barely liked Shakespeare in high school. There’s just something about the way teachers insist that every little thing is a deliberate choice by the writer to say something and we need to tear everything we read apart like we’re going to find the damn treasure of the Sierra Madre that bothers me…

SOMETIMES THE CURTAINS ARE JUST BLUE! *cough*

But I digress. Dickens was not the worst thing I remember reading–that would be The Scarlet Letter, which I hate with the fury of a supernova and will never read again if I value my sanity–so I decided to give him another shot. And I decided that I might as well start with the story I’d recently watched an adaptation of… so I went with Bleak House. Which is Dickens’, like, second-longest novel by word count. Because I might as well go big or go home.

So… I’ve been reading for a week and I’m on page 100. It’s not a fast book, guys. And this means, I’m sorry to remind you, I have no book to pair this week. Try me again when it’s my turn once more!

But just because there’s no pairing doesn’t mean there’s no drinking! I know I’m tempted to finish off my bottle of Scotch…

C

Monday Muse: The Side Effect of Mercutio

Hey, guys! Welcome to today’s Monday Muse. It’s going to be short because, once again, I am not prepared to write this.

Sorry, guys. I really am going to start writing down my ideas when I have them instead of assuming I’ll remember them. This is a cautionary tale for everyone, I think.

In answer to the questions I’ve been getting: no, I probably won’t be watching Still Star-Crossed. But lest anyone thinks that maybe I have a real problem with POC being cast in a Shakespeare-era show (which, if you know me at all… c’mon, people. Really?), it really has nothing to do with the show itself. Though, to be frank, it hinges on the part of Romeo and Juliet I always liked least: romance (or what passes for romance in R&J).

A and I will be the first to tell you that we’re not huge fans of Romeo and Juliet. Not the writing, of course, which is top notch Shakespeare, but the story. It’s full of idiotic kids being idiotic and the adults who should know better (looking at you, Friar Laurence) making it worse. If I want a great couple, I have Much Ado About Nothing‘s Beatrice and Benedick. If I want tragedy, well… Hamlet. Duh. But Romeo and Juliet has always been just sort of… not my favorite. And A, though maybe for different reasons, agrees. It’s the reason we wrote Killing Mercutio.

For those of you who don’t know, Killing Mercutio takes all the so-called romance out of the play and ages everyone up. Juliet, the youngest character, is eighteen. Benvolio and Mercutio are both in their thirties. At no point are Romeo and Juliet interested in one another except as compatriots in their shared cause. Really, their individual friendships with Mercutio and the way those relationships shaped them (Romeo and Juliet, I mean) is way more important than any connection between Montague and Capulet. Oh, and the rivalry between the families?  Dealt with by the Venetians, who have made Verona a vassal (which is historical). Some of it remains–you don’t just start being buds with your political enemies–but it certainly isn’t a driving force to the characters’ relationships. The Montagues don’t even play a big role in the politics of Verona anymore, having retired with their fortunes to the country.

Obviously, I don’t want to spill everything. And readers will still be able to see the play within our novel. But having lived with versions of the characters that are, shall we say, the truth behind the curtain, it’s a little hard to go back to versions of the story that keep the curtain firmly intact. I’m not interested in a Benvolio who may-or-may-not fall in love with Rosaline (I actually have a very small inkling what Still Star-Crossed is about, but with a name like that… some people better die. Y’all do know that star-crossed means doomed to tragedy, right? Not just falling in love with someone from the opposite side of the tracks.) because my Benvolio doesn’t give a damn about that sort of thing. Having thought about it a lot, I’m 99.9% convinced the Benvolio I wrote is aro/ace, so sex and romance are just out of the question. He is also, again, in his thirties. And Batman.

Did I mention he’s 15th century Veneto’s very own (not nearly as rich or techy) Batman?

Not to mention certain characters we left alive in our version are very much dead here.

So… no, I probably won’t be watching Still Star-Crossed. Which is just another of Shonda Rhimes’ shows I’ve never seen and I’m beginning to feel like a complete outsider to the realm of television phenomena (thank you, Game of Thrones, for giving me fandom street cred). But it has very little to do with being about Romeo and Juliet. It’s just that, when you’ve lived with a character in your head for as long as I have, seeing a different version of that character can feel… wrong. Especially the way Killing Mercutio works. Or maybe it’s just me. I’m well-versed in being a weirdo. I’ve never seen a single Shonda Rhimes show, remember?

C

Shakespeare Saturday: An Anecdote

This is a true story. A can tell you.

It’s not a particularly important story, nor does it have a point. It just illustrates the Nerd Cactus relationship with Shakespeare so very well that I wanted to share it with you.

A and I regularly go to bookstores together. If we near one when we’ve gotten together, you can bet we’ll end our day scouring the sale tables and laughing over the sometimes silly things people write. Or the funny titles. We don’t make fun of people. You know, except people who pass themselves off as historians and write things like “Why Obama is the Worst President Ever” when any historian worth their salt would never do something like that (not to mention it’s pretty commonly agreed upon that James Buchanan is the worst). We also look for comps pretty often because, you know, that sorta stuff is important.

I can’t remember what the book is called because I’ve put it out of mind, but this is the story of the time I threw a book back down on the table like it had burnt my fingers. It started well enough: Kit Marlowe’s death is faked. Yes! YES! I love stories like this, using the… not-quite-folklore, not-quite-mythic stories we’ve pulled out of history and writing novels as if they’re real. And we at Nerd Cactus plan to one day write a series of MG books following Kit Marlowe as he works for Walsingham as a spy.

I show the book to A. “This could be a comp!” I say, though it’d be only loosely comparable to Killing Mercutio. “We can look up who the writer’s agent is.” But then I read more closely…

This book is about how Kit Marlowe is really William Shakespeare!

AAAFHJFHDF}SFNVS”OAd!!!!!

“NOPE!” The book goes back on the table. “Now we’re bringing Kit Marlowe from the dead just to prove Shakespeare couldn’t have written his own plays!” A’s lip curls and she looks disgusted. We don’t want this to be a comp because… no. Anyone who’s willing to make money off Shakespeare should at least give him his legacy. We’re very pro-Shakespeare here at Nerd Cactus. And all I had to do is say “HE’S NOT SHAKESPEARE!” and A is right there with me.

We are truly made to be partners, I think.

Anyway. This story as no real purpose. I did warn you. It’s just a piece of color that’s very us.

We’ll be here tomorrow for the Silly. If not, technically it’s Sunday now.

C