Such used to be a favorite heading for when people posted to their LiveJournals after an unexpected hiatus. I found it amusing even before I knew the context, but of course now that I have read an appreciable amount of Discworld stories about Granny Weatherwax, it’s even more so.
Of course, to switch fandoms for a moment, I didn’t exactly have time for being even Partially Dead, but gastroenteric infections are no respecter of to-do lists. At least I got rested up from my adventures in two different emergency departments in time to write the sermon I was slated to give today!
I’m now feeling better and oddly pain-free, so perhaps I may post something this week in between catching up on my bullet journal and triaging my work email.
Meanwhile, I would just like to note my gratitude for the kindnesses shown to me by friends — beyond expectation in some cases — and even by people I don’t know, like the nice person in Panera who brought me a blueberry muffin for the road when I was packing up after finishing my sermon. For the nurse who covered me in warm blankets and the doctor who listened attentively to my case. Nobody’s obliged to be hospitable.
But it sure does brighten the universe when they are.
Here I am, on a Saturday morning, with cat paralysis, in an idle mood. So here are some idle thoughts.
It was very fortunate that I was slated to host the book club this month, as I needed some kind of impetus to unearth my kitchen from, let’s be honest, months of neglect. It’s…still a work in progress, but reasonably presentable. Or at least I hope so, because right after that I had a houseguest — my longtime friend, beta reader, and fellow author Erica Smith — for two days of playing with the cat and chilling on the porch with tea (when I wasn’t at work). I did manage to take a selfie of us at the bagel shop, but didn’t get any other pictures — dammit, apparently even a new camera is not enough to remind me of such things.
Ah well; Erica and I had some good in-person confab about our respective works in progress, which is what’s really important. And Erica didn’t seem to mind my dubious hospitality, which is as much the mark of a friend as going to a friend’s house and finding they didn’t overclean it for your arrival.
It’s my turn to choose the book club book again come September, so in hopes of finding something new to present, I bought a Kindle copy of The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It was entirely worth the recs I’d seen for it: the story was absorbing from the first moment, emotionally complex, with an intricate world and a fantastical, slightly steampunk-flavored atmosphere. And I read it all in one sitting — or I would have, if my eyes hadn’t given out at 96% at which point I realized I was in desperate need of sleep. I finished it first thing the next morning. This book is not, I fear, the kind of universal crowd-pleaser that To Say Nothing of the Dog and Doomsday Book (the most recent book club book) were — but then, what is? I may make them read it anyway, and get loaded on wine before it’s time to have the discussion.
Anyway, thanks to book club my nightstand currently looks like the quintessence of my mental space, so I took a picture of it to use for the category in future.
And finally, there was really no contest this morning between going out to run errands and getting out my watercolors. I had an idea of trying to represent what a prayer-light bowl looks like, based on a memory of a dish I used to have and with a tea-light in a different bowl as a guide. The result is not impressive but the color is all right. I may try this again on black paper, which would save me attempting a satisfactory background wash.
And that, I think, is all the news that’s fit to print.
It’s Saturday, nothing in particular is required of me, and though I certainly have a good deal of housework to do before the book club shows up here next Thursday, I have spent the morning puttering, going out only briefly to get an everything bagel with a garlic-herb schmear and a coffee.
I’ve also gone down the rabbit hole looking up music on Youtube. Seriously, sometimes I love living in the future. When I was a kid, if I wanted to sample a composer’s music, I had to walk uphill both ways to the library to put a hold on a CD. Now I can just click through to the next sample ad libitum. Which is precisely what I’ve been doing.
It all started when my friend Erica relayed the compliments of a friend who had bought and read Ryswyck on her recommendation. She mentioned rehearsing for a performance of Bruckner’s 7th symphony while she was reading it and thought they went well together. Now till yesterday, I had never heard any Bruckner; I have a sneaking affection for the Late Romantics, but my tastes tend toward the Slavs and the English rather than the Germans. So to the internets I went. On a cursory listen I can see why someone might find the symphony a good running background for Ryswyck, although (at a glance) I notice that the most salient feature of Bruckner’s 7th is that it is rather long, which I suppose is no more than I deserve, heh. It sounds like an interesting piece to play, which is something I would not say about Brahms or, God forbid, Mahler.
But naturally my thoughts turned to what music was/is in my mental background when I was writing or thinking about Ryswyck. Unfortunately, it’s rather like asking myself what I had for dinner two weeks ago: the fact is I just don’t recall listening to anything in particular while writing, and if any particular piece recommended itself to my mood, or to my concept of the atmosphere of the book, I can’t recall that either. Many years ago now I went ahead with the very bad idea of listening to Holst’s Hammersmith on repeat while writing a traumatic scene of a now-abandoned project; the experience rather soured me on the concept of composing under the influence, so to speak.
But, I finally recalled, I did put myself in the writing mood on at least one occasion with Vaughan Williams’s Sinfonia Antarctica, at least the first movement anyway. So I listened to that again yesterday, and because that opening two minutes just fascinates the hell out of me, I googled for commentary on it (three cheers for the future!) and found someone’s music theory dissertation of nonatonic collections in Vaughan Williams and Bax. A lot of music theory is over my head; for a while I labored under the mistaken idea that “nonatonic” meant “non-atonic” before realizing it meant “nine tones.” Anyway it certainly satisfied my curiosity (and then some) about the chord structure of the opening theme, with its application of opposing forces and the way it takes what could have been a straight harmonic minor scale and makes a parallelogram of it.
And that in a nutshell is the problem I have trying to summon musical quotations for a Ryswyckian playlist. The ‘verse is not our world; it doesn’t have the same religious history, for example, and though the ethnicities are coded (in longstanding tradition) to groups we recognize as vaguely Anglo/Scots/Breton/Alsatian, the peoples in the ‘verse aren’t really those things. Yet music is very important in the story, as a cultural matrix and a motive (in many senses of the word) for the characters; if I had the facility for musical genius that Tolkien had for languages, I would be highly tempted to write the kind of music I imagine my characters singing. (I wonder if Howard Shore does pro bono work?)
As it is, I put some thought into assembling some of the eclectic flavors that go into the mood and outlook of Ryswyck. Besides the Vaughan Williams, a contemporary piece I’ve linked before by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Something for the Dark, moved me when I heard it in performance. I am not very enamored with the opening statement, but the fragile persistence of the second theme made me think right away of Speir, and the overall eclecticism seems fitting to me for a post-nuclear age.
A song I do remember listening to, though it doesn’t speak directly to anything in the book, is Agnes Obel’s “The Curse.” The collection needs an elegiac ostinato in there, and this one strikes a very appropriate note.
The “chants” described in the book are, to some extent, inspired by plainsong tones such as can be found in the Plainsong Psalter, particularly the Tonus Peregrinus, except that Ilonian chant supports both polyphony and drones, the latter of which would set it apart from Anglican chant. At its most sublime it would strike a note much like Ola Gjeilo’s “The Spheres,” from the Sunrise Mass.
In more martial contexts, and in the seasonal songbooks, the effect is similar to shape-note tunes like “Clamanda” and “Tender Thought.” (For the former I’m indebted to Ann Leckie; it’s not the only time I have progressed in my labors only to discover later that AL had broken the ground before me.) This is one example of the many ways in which I decided to put my own American eclecticism to use delineating a world in which cultures have painstakingly put themselves back together like the fractures of a bone. It’s more invocation than description.
The more playful songs, along with the reels, owe a lot to anything in our world played with the bodhran, the fiddle, the Celtic flute, and the pipes. But do you know just how much Session music there is to trawl through? I’d be reduced to a cobweb-draped skeleton before I could find the perfect tune to evoke the sense of it without indebting myself too much to the history built up behind so many of these tunes. I did find the fiddle virtuoso Liz Carroll, however; a representative track (though sans bodhran) gets near the kind of thing that’s in my head.
And because it’s July and my friend K has got Summerfest tickets again, I have chamber music on tap every Sunday of the month. Till I started going to these concerts I did not realize just how much of the charm of chamber music depends on being in the same room with it — and that too is a part of the ‘verse. Recorded music is not a popular means of consumption in Ilona, nor do people go to large concerts unless they live in the capital. Music is very much a cottage industry, made by people whose names you know because you grew up with them, or the next town over; it’s the only form of corporate worship there is, and thus is oriented to the community rather than the individual. That’s one way in which eclecticism plays us false, I think: we have so much to choose from that it’s hard to get past thinking about what one likes and dislikes, about one’s own empirical autobiographical experiences, to the context of the people knitted in with us. A poised engagement: that is the ethic I’m reaching for here.
So, there you have it: an off-the-cuff playlist for the Ryswyck ‘verse. Probably ten minutes after I post this I’ll be slapping my brow at what I forgot, but it can’t be helped. Happy Saturday!
Yes, even when I’m on writing sabbath this blog is 100% genuwyne quality content. Starting with thanks to the folks who sent me recs for summer reading — I’ve ordered a few things and look forward to charging my Kindle frequently.
One author I like to collect in hard copy, meanwhile, is Ann Leckie, and since I’ve had a critical mass of recs for her new fantasy novel The Raven Tower, I went ahead and bought it to read over the weekend. I was not disappointed. One of the things I appreciate so much about Leckie — apart from the commitment to pushing the frontiers of how we treat gender in SFF and the interrogation of domination systems in fine, spare prose — is the internal consistency of her inventions. Every McGuffin has a firm solidity, every world has a margin outside the frame of the story. And she knows how to surprise. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a story written in the second person — strictly speaking, second person isn’t really a POV, as it assumes (as this story does) a first-person narrator to focus on that second person. The character in focus is a trans man; and Leckie is an example to any writer wanting to do representation right, because that fact, while it presents complications in some situations, isn’t what the story is about, nor does Eolo have anything less than an individual take on his own identity.
I also appreciate reading the kind of story that I also prefer to write — one in which the final reveal is not a sprung surprise but a culmination of what is in plain view. The Raven Tower, perhaps appropriately, has a plot like granite — disparate events being gradually drawn and fused by great pressures — and the final tableau is satisfying as any parable should be, with a stone-like chill to tickle the reader’s spine with. Altogether I would say that for me this book was not as life-changing a read as Ancillary Justice, but easier to bond with than Provenance. I give it an unreserved rec.
In other news, a friend from my community, on hearing that I’d taken up photography, offered to send me an extra camera of his — gratis, as he was in the process of decluttering his house. To my shocked pleasure, what arrived in a box for me the following week was a very fine never-used Lumix with an all-in-one telephoto lens. I’ve been practicing with it, and went out on Saturday to photograph fountains, with really satisfying results.
The camera also has a great capacity for macro shots — I’ve been putting selected photos on Facebook as I take them.
The real photographer in our family, by the way, is my sibling Sam, who took the photo I chose for my author avatar in this and other venues. Sam and I are planning to start a podcast centering on our artistic fields, media criticism, and representation, with (probably) a healthy dose of snark. I’ve been considering launching a newsletter in the future, so podcasts could certainly serve as Genuwyne Quality Content for subscribers, along with easter egg scenes, notes on public appearances (assuming I make any), and other such things as I would be less likely to post on this blog.
I also read an article on the virtues of making a book trailer, which, as I told Erica, “sounded like fun, and by fun I mean a money- and time-sink that results in a disappointing product,” so although it was a little tempting to browse royalty-free music files, I scrapped the idea.
One thing I did make, for my amusement and office white noise, was a new composite generator on the MyNoise site. The Ryswyck one I made six months ago is still nice, but it’s rather stationary in nature. This one I call The Defender — it has a little more drive to it, and makes me think of Speir and her training routines.
Welp, that’s all the news that’s fit to print from these parts.
I will probably make a more festive post later, but first, a meditation. There are special reasons why I chose to set the release date of Ryswyck to Memorial Day. Quite apart from the logistical convenience of launching my book on a, well, memorable date that dovetailed with my project schedule, the theme of bearing witness to the loss of comrades and loved ones in war is a significant thread in this story.
For those who have given “the last full measure of devotion,” the moment has already been folded and purled under the current of the river of time. But for us who bear witness, the moment demands ongoing recognition and respect. To lay down a token offering, to strike a light, to gather up prayers: these seemingly futile acts are the breath of our humanity. If we have forgotten to breathe, they revive us.
Among other things, I wanted to bear witness to the necessity of bearing witness. I wanted to show how indispensable each person is to both the waging of war and the making of peace. It’s no accident that the one character whose sacrifice provides the turning point in the darkest hour is the most ordinary person in the cast.
This and other sacrifices are irreparable losses. But they are not irredeemable gifts. I’ve excerpted a moment of bearing witness from a moment just after the midpoint of the novel, in which Douglas lights a prayer for a lost comrade.
He’d promised Speir he would do this. Not that he knew what he was doing. His mother was no contemplative, and his siblings had scarcely had time to teach him anything but the rudiments of keeping a household light burning. All offerings are acceptable, said the sage. Douglas hoped that was true. There was a saying that paired with that: Only offerings are acceptable. That left out displays for others, gifts secretly intended to be temporary, and counters for negotiation, Douglas supposed. His hands were empty, even of the means to negotiate…
Douglas took his light to an empty cleft in the undressed rock. He tipped a few hot, clear drops onto the rock and the crusts of older prayers, and held his light in the cleft until it was anchored.
“He died as a soldier,” he said quietly to his flame. “But he wasn’t killed as a soldier. I’m bearing witness to that.” A crushing pressure, hardly an emotion, gripped him; he drew a breath against it.
“Their names are eternally spoken,” he finished. Then he bowed and left his offering of defiance before the burning lights.
Well, not completely: music and art make their way into my blogging on the regular, and there are plenty of interesting things to post about.
A couple months ago I bought a 24-pan set of watercolors, because I wanted to reproduce my cover-art concept for Beth Leggett. This is the best view of the result:
But the upshot is, I have new watercolors. Yay! So every now and then I pull them out and practice.
Ultimately I’d like to produce an image strong enough to cover “Household Lights,” but that stage is a ways off.
Meanwhile, I have discovered some new music! First, a piece by an Icelandic artist that crossed my path in a Lenten devotion, which informed me that “brot” means “bread” in German and something like “torn” in Icelandic, making a cross-lingual Eucharistic pun of sorts.
And last weekend I was at the symphony (no, I didn’t light my cell phone and call for the Widor Toccata — Carmina Burana was the featured piece and that was quite enough to be going on with), and the opening piece was a new one by Sarah Kirkland Snider called Something for the Dark.
None of my companions liked this piece, but I found it moving and interesting. The reflective motif introduced by the flute in the middle has a strong delicacy that is attractive in itself; and since my head’s been full of Ryswyck since ordering the proof, it made me think of Speir and her perspective, how it gets fraught by events; how it perseveres. If I were making a Ryswyck playlist, I would be tempted to put this piece on it.
Up next on my art-and-music docket: fun with photography. We’ll see if I can get a good walk in between thunderstorms.
So yesterday was the kind of day where, although things didn’t exactly go badly, there was just a general atmosphere of stress, exacerbated by all the little things crowding the margins of my mind that I haven’t gotten done. I have taxes to do, and a sermon to write, and certain work deadlines have been glaring at me from beneath their heaps in Outlook for weeks.
(Speaking of exacerbate, a friend of mine has a running joke where when someone uses a 25-cent word, she says, “And [simpler word], too.” Once in our hearing, V remarked that something-or-other would exacerbate a certain situation, and C said: “It might even make it worse.”)
So at close of business yesterday evening, I shut down the lid of my laptop. “Fuck it,” I said, “I’m going to Bo Lings.” I put on my hat, grabbed my file of “Household Lights,” and went.
Bo Lings is one half of my mental spa ritual. The other half is Barnes & Noble. The order in which I visit them depends on how hungry I am, and whether I plan to purchase reading material to go with my dumplings and egg drop soup. In this case, preliminary editing was the order of the day, so after dinner I walked the two blocks to B&N and mouched about, browsing.
To my delight, I found that B&N had stocked Erin Bow’s new book. Which is, deplorably, not always the case at my local B&N.
Lo these many years ago, I was a failed beta reader for one of Erin’s early projects. Can we talk briefly about beta reading failure? Writers (at least all the writers I know including myself) continually trawl the mental rolodex of their friends for possible readers for their manuscripts: people with certain areas of expertise, or with discriminating taste, or with an editor’s eye for detail, or all of the above. But sometimes it happens that someone agrees to read a manuscript and then…just doesn’t. Or just can’t. And then there’s a shame spiral and they can’t even look at the file, and turn aside from the topic as soon as may be and may take to avoiding the writer on the street.
I’ve been on both ends of such a weltering disaster, and producing Ryswyck has taught me a lot about this aspect of project management. Well, actually, one of my betas taught me a lot about it: she suggested I give a timeline along with available dates for discussion so that she would be able to work it concretely into her schedule. “Ooh, concept,” said ADHD me. By providing a proposed deadline and other parameters, I as the writer can practice expectations management, and the beta reader can find it easier to cancel if necessary without having to say I don’t want to read your book ever ever ever.
Anyway, Erin has obviously found better betas, because she has now produced a string of brilliant books. I read through Chapter Six last night, and look forward to getting back to it. (You know, somewhere among all the abovementioned work.) Some writers worthy of the Evil Author badge are ingenious at making you cry by the end of the book, but Erin is special: she made me shed tears AT THE BEGINNING WTF.
Talk about a mental spa service upgrade. Couldn’t have found a better way to ameliorate my anxiety.
Spring has sprung! I’m spending mornings with the balcony door open and feeling the itch to plot this year’s garden — along with a number of other allergy-related itches due to the neighborhood trees, but everybody’s got to live. And I’ve got to the point in preparing the ebook document where the light at the end of the tunnel looks less like an oncoming train.
So while I’m slogging through the last tedious bits of work, I give you two pieces of music pour s’amuser. One is a fascinating piece by a traditional Japanese drum ensemble, which I could watch over and over. One of the first things I noticed was that these young people played the entire piece while sustaining a lunge. Could I sustain a lunge for ten minutes straight? I doubt it.
The other is a piece I have long delighted in, ever since I heard it when it was being used as the postlude for ordinations at the cathedral. This is pretty great, but you really haven’t heard this piece till you’ve heard it in person in a resonant space. If I wanted to heckle Michael Stern at the Kansas City Symphony, I wouldn’t call for “Free Bird,” I’d call for somebody to get up in the organ loft and play the Widor Toccata. Every time I’m at the Kauffman I keep hoping the program will put that organ to use, but it rarely happens, alas.
Gusto is the thing. Sometimes I think it’s the whole point of music: if you have gusto and don’t know what to do with it, I say fire up one of these babies.
Now to await the first thunderstorm of the spring, when I will blast the “Dona nobis pacem” from the Bach Mass.
Had a beta chat re: “Household Lights” today, which reminded me of this amusing incident tangentially involving one of my other beta readers….
One evening last month, I was at a friend’s house for dinner with the spouse of one of my betas, and as we were going to our cars and waving goodbye to one another, I stopped.
Me: I’ll have to come over next week and tell you and S all about the sex scene I just wrote. Him [ears congested from the weather]: Oh, yes, S would like to see you too, real soon! Me: No, I said I want to tell you about how I wrote a sex scene. Him: What? You wrote about seeing something? Me: NO. I WROTE A SEX SCENE. Him: What??
At this point K’s whole neighborhood knows I wrote a sex scene, and D still doesn’t. I go closer to him.
Me: Scene!! I wrote a scene! Him: Oh, a scene! Me: With sex in it. Him: OH! Well, that’ll sell.
When I told S about this little tableau later, she laughed fit to kill.
Fortunately for my reputation in K’s neighborhood, none of my betas have seen fit to ask me to revise said scene. Even if they had, though, I think I’ve learned my lesson about throwing out references to sex scenes in the driveways of friends’ houses.
Well, I’m a bit pleasantly tipsy, and I’ll tell you why. I spent the day writing, and in celebration of the fact that I have but two sequences left of this story, and am recovering nicely from my illness, I walked down to the Blue Koi and sat myself down at the bar to eat pot stickers and read The Princess Bride (because after all, I’m leading the discussion at book club next week and I ought at least to have reread the book).
I also asked the bartender to make me a gin martini, and he made a doozy. It was good. It was big. It was big and good, and I drank every drop plus a large cup of jasmine tea for afters. And then I walked home in the damp and no-longer-so-fucking-frigid night.
Have I mentioned how I love my neighborhood? A block along in my journey home I passed two young men on the sidewalk in black hoodies. They had warm skin and facial hair and one had an affectionate arm thrown over the other’s shoulder. As I approached he smiled at me and said Hi silently, and held up his hand. I slapped it as I passed. And I walked on happily into the night and that is what my neighborhood is like.
And now, and now, I must go down and get my laundry out of the dryer in the basement if I want a clothed bed to sleep in, and I have written all but two sequences of this story, and drunk a very large and delicious gin martini and eaten a serving of pork dumplings, and tomorrow is another day, and this one was pretty damn good.