From Collins to Braddon to Radcliffe to Walpole

I love the way Wikipedia and public domain ebooks have taken surfing to a whole new level. A random thought can lead to a month of reading material. I no longer need to be content with hunting down summaries and snippets, then deciding if a bigger investment is needed. Instead, I can just download whole tomes and read as much or little as my interest merits.

I finally finished The Lady in White last week. It’s been on my to-be-read list for about five years. It took me four years to get the book, then another year to pick it up and read it. This weekend, I read the introduction and all the other related material that came with my spiffy edition. Lo and behold, I had just read my second sensation novel. Who knew there was a literary movement that happened entirely during the 1860s and 1870s in Victorian England? Just take Gothic story elements and put them into what, at the time these books were written, was a contemporary setting. It sounds a bit like the paranormal romance or urban fantasy of its day.

This all led to my next discovery: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, first published in 1862. It’s one of those titles that seems familiar, but I had never placed the book in any context, nor imagined that it was a wild success in its own time, nor thought that it’s the product of a highly prolific author. Braddon apparently wrote 75 novels. She scribbled out 14 of them before the typewriter was even invented.

Then Wikipedia led me to its more elaborate entry for the Gothic fiction. I downloaded two books here. The first is The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe from 1794. This is apparently the quintessential Gothic romance, complete with swooning damsels and never-ending landscape descriptions. The second is The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole which was first published in 1764. This is billed as the book that started Gothic romance. Walpole claimed that the story was a translation of a work by an Italian author, who later turned out to be as fictional as the rest of the book, but it does still make for an amusing–if not quite true–introduction.

It’s this last book that caught my attention for now. It’s amusing, though perhaps not in ways intended. It’s the literary equivalent of bad acting, yet still groundbreaking. All around, it was a great afternoon of not just researching these books, but getting to dive into their full text… a few seconds after discovering them. Collins led to Braddon led to Radcliffe led to Walpole. It might be three years before I finish all these books, if that ever happens, but with paper I’d still be debating which one–if any–I should buy first.

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Thoughts on Do the Work by Steven Pressfield

Do the Work by Steven PressfieldIt’s tough to write about Do the Work by Steven Pressfield without focusing on how the book was published. It’s the second release from the Domino Project, a joint effort between Amazon and Seth Godin. Their first book was Poke the Box by Godin himself, though in Do the Work Godin limits himself to the introduction.

Pressfield is also the author of a slew of successful novels, including Gates of Fire and The Legend of Bagger Vance.  In Do the Work, he revisits the advice from his wonderfully titled War of Art, offering a basic roadmap for tackling creative projects. He focuses on the concept of Resistance–yes, with a capital “R”–and how it can freeze us on the blank page. He writes mostly of writing, but the formula he lays out could equally apply to any entrepreneurial or political endeavor–anything that requires a massive effort to yank a something from the void. The central tenant is that Resistance will show its fangs each step of the way and must be bludgeoned into submission. To do this, we employ the power of stupidity and its other allies. Don’t overthink it. Banish perfectionism from the creative process.

There’s nothing profoundly new here, and the book doesn’t offer as concrete of a plan as it claims. It’s more rough outline, wrapped in a harsh–think drill sergeant–pep talk. It’s also a slim tome. I was able to read it cover to cover on the bus ride to and from work. But I’ll revisit it, once I get stuck and need a firm kick in the butt to get going again. The book reminded me of Unleash the Warrior Within by Richard J. Machowicz, which I strongly suspect Pressfield has read. His references to the Navy SEAL training program seem to have been drawn from Machowicz’s stories. Though this other book goes beyond the pep talk, and offers help with understanding and evaluating priorities.

I picked up the ebook version of Do the Work for free through a sponsorship that the Domino Project received from General Electric. (Only after reading Do the Work did I realize that this is the second book by Pressfield that I’ve read. Gates of Fire, his novel about the battle of Thermopylae in ancient Greece, was much beloved at the bookstore where I once worked.) The ebook was briefly priced at $9.99, but for now at least, is free again. It seems to have been designed with the ebook format in mind. The cover–like the first book from the Domino Project–is a single image with no text, perfect for a postage-stamp sized icon. There are chunks of super-sized text throughout the book. And whole pages dedicated to a single–white on black–word.

There’s also a signed, limited edition hardback that comes with a special metal plate–one with a 16th-century style engraving, no less–that’s available for $65. I love to see the Domino Project experimenting with new formats, taking the book beyond just pixels on a screen or bound paper. I suspect this won’t be the last offering from the Domino Project to land on my Kindle.

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High Quality Is the Future of Paper

The Woman in White by Wilkie CollinsI’ve been reading The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins for the last few weeks. It’s one of those massive tomes that’s been on my to-be-read list for years. Last Christmas, I got a copy of it in a recently re-released, and super fancy binding. I pulled it off the shelf a couple weeks ago, then got fed up with the tiny text in the paper book and switched to the free Kindle version.

Then I got tired of that, and switched back to the paper book. I went back and forth for a while, but at the halfway point through the book, paper wins. I love this binding, a solid stitch that shows no sign of tearing.  I like the rough feel of this book’s cover in my hands. The book is a bit on the heavy side at almost 700 pages, but has wonderful thick paper. Each page turn matters. I also like the extensive footnotes, and the silk bookmark. All around it’s a much more fitting experience for this 150 year old text.

One other thing: I had no idea that I have a terrible reading habit until after I started reading on Kindle. At the beginning of a chapter, I like to flip ahead to see how long that chapter will be. This works for sections of a book too. The Woman in White is broken into three massive sections, and getting to the end of one is an accomplishment to be much anticipated. This quick flip ahead, and then return to current page, is almost impossible with the Kindle. Books there are one long endless stream of text, which is a bit intimidating when reading a brick like this one. Also Collins, like many of his contemporaries, could be a bit overly verbose in his descriptions. Those sometimes require a quick scan ahead too.

This edition of The Woman in White is  part of the fantastic series of Penguin hardback classics designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith. I love these books! They’re the future of paper. Nice, clunky things with solid bindings and creamy paper. Though yes, the text would do well to be a bit bigger.

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Thoughts on Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart

For months, Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart has been hovering near the bottom of the list of the top 100 free Kindle ebooks. It’s a collection of letters from a Wyoming homesteader, dated from when she first arrived on her claim in 1909, through 1913. They’re all addressed to her friend and former employer in Denver, who seems to have seen more in the letters than their author did. Stewart emerges as a big hearted woman, who would most likely be shocked that her letters are achieving such fame a century after she wrote them.

She had no formal training as a writer, but her words–as well as her frequent book references–show that she must have been a voracious reader. She brings the old West to life, but not in the way I would have expected. The people here are wonderful characters, full of life and generous almost to a fault. She describes food so well that all opinions I had previously of bland, canned diets have been vanquished. It seems there was often a cause for a feast. Stewart bountifully describes meals piled high by the side of makeshift campfires, putting today’s fast food standards to shame.

But it’s in her descriptions of the Wyoming landscape where Stewart truly excels. It’s obvious that she fell in love with this land, reveled in all that nature had to offer. The letters are riddled with evocative descriptions:

For a distance our way lay up Henry’s Fork valley; prosperous little ranches dotted the view, ripening grain rustled pleasantly in the warn morning sunshine, and closely cut alfalfa fields made bright spots of emerald against the dun landscape. The quaking aspens were just beginning to turn yellow; everywhere purple asters were a blaze of glory except where the rabbit-bush grew in clumps, waving its feathery plumes of gold. Over it all the sky was so deeply blue, with little, airy, white clouds drifting lazily along. Every breeze brought scents of cedar, pine, and sage. At this point the road wound along the base of the cedar hills; some magpies were holding a noisy caucus among the trees, and high overhead a great black eagle soared.

The letters are often separated by months, and usually detail trips Stewart took to neighboring homesteads. A fiercely independent woman, she made a habit of bundling her young children into a wagon and heading out into the countryside, where she often would need to take an unexpected detour and spend the night camping out.  Lots of elaborate tales of weddings, pot luck dinners, and holiday get-togethers. Her tone is upbeat, if not inspirational, and there is only the slightest hint of all the work that must have happened between such festivities, little more than side references to how much labor was involved with the day-to-day life of a homesteader.

Stewart comes across as downright contemporary. One can only imagine what she would make of the connectivity that modern communications would have allowed the homesteader. Her letters are a real treasure, a wonderful portrayal of life in the not-so-old West.


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28 Cents per Book, Am I Really This Cheap?

It’s been a little over two months since I got my Kindle. The thing about the whole experience that’s amazed me the most is how I haven’t stepped into a physical book store since then. Such a book store drought before would have been unthinkable. My book acquisition demon seems to be satiated by downloading samples. I have nearly a hundred of them on the device now. I’m also rediscovering classics, love that I can access them instantly, for free, and then read as much or as little as I want with no feeling of having to stick with it. And I’m sampling a lot of indie authors too, though admittedly only getting past the sample stage for a select few.

Here’s the list of books I’ve downloaded in full (samples are too numerous to easily list) and what I paid for each. Public domain books were all free.

Paid books:

Public domain books:

I’m averaging a staggering 28 cents a book. (Though if you factor in the cost of the Kindle and case, it comes out to almost $16 per book.) That’s downright embarrassing. I really thought I had spent more money on books, as I seem to be downloading them all the time. I didn’t buy the device so I could get cheap books. I bought it so I could have access to books that otherwise weren’t available. Some of the public domain books, such as those by Mary Johnston and Marietta Holley, are out of print. I love that so much of this esoteric stuff is available instantly, and in full. The fact that it’s free is a bonus.

I also haven’t given up on paper books. I’m still reading them, but focusing on the hundreds of unread books that I have piled up around the house. There is something strangely satisfying about hacking my way through these piles faster than they grow, for the first time ever. I seem to have found a new rhythm of one paper book from the shelf, then one ebook. But if my paper purchases slow down (yes, at some point I’ll go back and buy more) and if I’m averaging a mere pittance per book, how does this bode for publishing? Not well, it seems. Even Amazon can’t be all that excited about a 28 cent average per download. Yes, they got paid for the device, but my hunch is they’re barely breaking even supplying me with downloads.

Does this mean that I’m officially giving myself permission to spend more money on books?

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Thoughts on Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher fits snugly into the dystopian trend in young adult fiction. It tells the story of two people in different worlds. There’s Finn, an inmate in a futuristic prison with the same name as the book. He has no memory of his childhood, and is convinced that he did what no one else in the vast prison has done… seen outside. Then there is Claudia, daughter of the warden of Incarceron, who lives in a highly refined and aristocratic world, one where technology is artificially held back through Protocol.

The book starts with a bang, with Finn about to be run over, and doesn’t let up much through the end. Fisher has mastered the art of throwing rocks at her characters, though it’s often–perhaps as a result of so many hurled rocks–the secondary characters who feel more deftly drawn, if not outright likeable. Attia, a slave girl, was my favorite. She was unquestionably devoted to her master, yet also more than capable of taking care of herself. Lord Evian, a tireless sycophant with a secret, came a close second.

The settings of the book are wonderfully evocative, and change rapidly. Finn moves through the prison world, making his way out from the belly of the beast. Often it feels like the stage sets are the real stars of the book, and the main characters just show up to move the furniture around. Yes, this book fired on all cylinders, but it ultimately never captured me the way I hoped it would.

I did come to Incarceron with high expectations. It was the most recommended young adult fantasy at the SCBWI Weekend on the Water writer’s retreat last November. I heard more than one rave over it. And yes, the book is the work of a master wordsmith and highly skilled storyteller. But it all felt a bit like watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The sets were fantastic. The lighting and atmosphere spot on. The actors immensely talented. But the sum of it all somehow lacking.

There were so many opportunities where Incarceron could have offered much more than action, but it never seems to have taken aim for the profound. The story surged from one instance of mortal peril or jaw-dropping scenery to the next, never asking anything too serious of the reader. So that in the end, I wasn’t quite sure what Incarceron is about, and feel that in spite of the fine skill that Fisher displays, I’ll soon forget all about this prison and its inmates.

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Lucas Cranach the Elder and Speed Painting

This blog is getting rather dusty lately, but I have a good excuse, really I do. I’ve been focused on finishing the rough draft of what will be my first novel. I have two other novels in the drawer. Whether they ever see the light of day is far from certain, but if they do, they won’t be the first out of the gate. That spot is reserved for this puppy.

Speed. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and my own scribbles. It seems that the faster I write, the better I write. Short bursts of creative output are key. I’ve also heard this idea debated with the explosion of ebooks. Writers are about to enter a new golden age of pulp. One where fast writers will be far more likely to make a living than slow writers. The pulp writers of the 30s and 40s produced a lot of less than savory tomes, but they also produced the occasional masterpiece. That’s true for all art. A whole lot of fluff, and the occasional gem.

Then I came across the essay “‘… that you paint with wonderful speed’ Virtuosity and Efficiency of the Artistic Practice of Lucas Cranach the Elder” by Gunnar Heydenreich this weekend. It details a myriad of ways in which the Renaissance master, sped up his process. Things like laying down the total composition in a carefully thought out manner to reduce the drying time needed between sessions. Or tracing outlines of figures that would appear across multiple works. Movement and fluidity were the priority:

It was not only the more expensive pigments but also the more refined and lavish painting techniques that were reserved for commissions of greater importance.

Cranach would often take shortcuts, such as painting fur with a double-tipped brush. This technique was apparently never adopted by Albrecht Durer, his less prolific contemporary. Durer did what Renaissance masters are supposed to have done. He painstakingly reproduced each tuft of fur with a single-tipped brush. I’ve always admired how flat, and almost cartoonlike a lot of Cranach’s paintings are, with solid blue or green monochrome backgrounds. I never thought until this essay that this played a role in how the artist was able to make a living from his art. More paintings produced in less time.

Cranach also dabbled in early publishing. He went so far as to purchase a beechwood forest to increase the profits of his business. His books were bound with beechwood covers, and his paintings were often produced on beechwood of the same size as standard book dimensions of the time. Efficiency of scale. The printing press must have gone a long way to introduce this concept of speed to the early Renaissance. We often hear that we live in fast times now, but the rate at which things acclerate today is nothing compared to how much faster the early part of the 16th century must have felt like compared to all that came before it.

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