Melodrama can be fun

A Discovery of Witches is a book that I am not convinced is good, but you can bet I devoured it and will read all three books in the trilogy. The question is: why?

First, let’s get the basic plot out of the way. Diana is a witch, but she doesn’t use her powers, nor is she interested in using them. She’s perfectly happy being an American history professor at Oxford. Until she calls up a book from the archives: Ashmole 782. This book, it turns out is enchanted, and everyone from the three non-human races (vampires, witches, demons, all of whom look conveniently human) is interested in reading it. Alas, she’s already sent it back to the stacks. Don’t bother with why everyone wants it. Ashmole 782 is the book’s macguffin. Everyone is suddenly after Diana.

One particular vampire, Matthew Clairmont becomes more entranced with Diana than the book. He turns out to be French nobility, because of course he is. They fall in love very melodramatically – the whole book is very melodramatic – and he protects her as they have adventures and he awakens the witchy part of her. Of course he does.

Which brings us back to the question of why do I like this book? I’ve admitted to enjoying romances, and the romance aspect is part of it. I’m much more partial to a story about relationships than a story where people are horrible to each other. There’s enough horror in the world.

But it’s not like this is a happy book – there’s kidnapping and torture and death. There is Good – Diana and Matthew and their families – and there is Evil – the Congregation, a group of people who want to keep Diana and Matthew apart, who also want Diana to bring the book back so everyone can learn what’s in it for their own advantage.

It’s melodrama, a genre that is so over the top that it’s practically camp, and A Discovery of Witches is definitely taking itself seriously. And that might be why I devoured it: the heightened emotions, the very clear good vs evil, putting family first, and the love story. There is something appealing about that, especially when it’s on my television screen or in a novel.

And so yes, I will read the second book in the series, which involves time travel, and probably the third, too. And I might tell you to read them too.

Virginia Hall is amazing

A Woman of No Importance is the biography of Virginia Hall, a young American socialite who falls in love with France as a girl. After college, she moves to Europe and gets a series of jobs with the US State Department; because it’s the 1930s they want her to be a secretary and she is not satisfied with that option. As a result, she moves around from place to place, trying to get a better job. During the 1930s, while she’s in Turkey, she accidentally shoots herself in the foot and loses her left leg below the knee.

When WWII breaks out, she feels the burning desire to help, to do something. She starts as an ambulance driver in France; when France falls to the Germans, she makes her way to Britain and gets a job with the SOE, also known as Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” Under her cover of being an American journalist, she moves to Lyon, starts coordinating efforts amongst the resistance – turning it from pockets of people into a coordinated movement.

Virginia Hall turns out to be incredibly good at this. She inspires loyalty in people and eventually is coordinating the efforts of and distributing supplies to hundreds of people.

But she gets burnt. In 1942, a German double agent infiltrates her circle, and she barely escapes. To escape, she walks across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. In the winter. On her wooden leg. Because that’s what she does and that’s who she is.

Britain won’t send her back into the field after this incident – too many Germans know who she is and they really, really don’t like her. So Virginia switches to work for the US’ OSS. The OSS does send her back into the field, under heavy disguise, into a different part of France, to coordinate with the maquis to lay the groundwork for D Day. They’re initially resistant to taking orders from a woman, but Virginia has by this time become battle hardened and knowledgeable and takes no shit from anyone. She figures out who she can work with, discards the people she can’t, and moves on ahead.

After WWII, she finds work with the CIA, who, with the US back on its patriarchal BS after WWII, doesn’t use her nearly as effectively as they could or should.

I LOVED A Woman of No Importance. Virginia Hall is amazing, her story is well-told, and the history is compelling. Like, I finally understand why James Bond is so damn popular. I am not surprised one bit that JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot has bought the rights for the movie, nor that Daisy Ridley is attached to play Virginia Hall. I hope it doesn’t sit in development for too long.

Women of the French Revolution

Liberty is a brief summary of the French Revolution told though the eyes of some of its famous women. I’d originally checked it out of the library to learn more about Germaine de Staël, but she was only one of what turned out to be six fascinating women. All of these women, from all walks of life, made a difference during the Revolution. Some ran salons, some agitated in the streets, some maneuvered behind the scenes.

The misogyny of the revolutionaries like Robespierre and Napoleon unites the stories of all six women. The major revolutionaries were constantly calling for all men to be equal, but they definitely meant men and not people. Women were supposed to stay home and breast-feed their babies and support the family. That was not the role these women chose to play. They had their supporters along the way; but at the end of the day, women in France actually ended up at the end of the Revolution with fewer rights than they started with.

I recommend Liberty if you’re interested in either a feminist take on the French Revolution or if you need a high-level refresher on what happened during it.

Focus, dammit

Wired for Story wasn’t as practical for me as Story Genius was (also by Lisa Cron), which wasn’t to say that it wasn’t helpful. Lisa Cron’s emphasis on focus and making sure everything that happens in whatever you’re writing is there to drive action, which in turn drives character development is incredibly helpful. If it doesn’t cause your character to develop as a person, it shouldn’t be in the story.

But really, I love how Lisa Cron’s books have finally helped me define readability. It’s not how well-written something is, it’s about how tightly crafted the story is, how the characters develop, and whether what is happening is necessary or a reaction against what happened in the previous scenes. It’s about how not-shaggy a book is.

I would recommend Story Genius over Wired for Story, but, honestly, both are useful.

How to be, as a writer

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is part of my reading books about writing, even though it’s not a book about craft. It’s more about how to live as a writer, finding the time to write and read in every nook and cranny of your day, how to live passionately for the things you believe in, and possibly how to incorporate those things into your writing. And how writing can be therapy and how therapy sometimes needs to happen before you can write about what you most need to.

The thing from this book that I can’t get out my head is an image of him writing on the subway, on the way to his cater-waiter job that paid for his life for so long. It’s not about having the perfect space to write, it’s about doing the writing wherever and however you can.

I’m going to be thinking about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel for a long time to come.

Nothing gets written without actually writing

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve got an idea for a story, maybe even a book-length story. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I checked out a bunch of how-to-write books out of the library. Bird by Bird is one of the original.

I didn’t learn specific methods, not really. A couple of good tips, like start somewhere, take it step by step (the origin of the bird by bird title), and the shitty first draft, sure. But my main takeaways from Bird by Bird were: nothing gets written without actually sitting down and writing, and, a writer needs to get out in the world.

Sitting down and writing means prioritizing writing, which is something I’m not necessarily good at. I’m a working mom, so there’s always something else that needs doing. (The current state of my desk is not pretty.) I have tried writing on my phone, using the cloud to store the document, a thing I know works for some people. It’s not for me. To get this story written, I’m going to need to spend more time with my butt in my chair, typing away.

The opposite, though, is also true. Writing is lonely, just you at your computer. And you need to know things for your books, specific details like what’s the name of that street, what did it feel like when you and your first significant other broke up, what the wire thing on the top of the champagne bottle is called. So when the loneliness gets to be too much, make a phone call. Have coffee with a friend. Do some research. You, as a writer, also need to get out in the world. Go into the world.

Bird by Bird didn’t necessarily give me a new way to tackle my story, not in the same way that Story Genius did. But it did remind me that writing doesn’t magically happen, and in the writing, don’t forget to live.

Reading about writing

I have started writing a number of books. Usually, I run out of steam while writing them, finding I don’t care as much about the idea as I thought I did. This last time, though, I care about this story and it’s not working. It’s not a matter of getting through the shitty first draft. Something in the story isn’t working, and I have faith in the idea. I wasn’t sure what it was, though. What was worse was that I didn’t know what to do other than start over. And then start over again.

So when Jasmine Guillory’s newsletter from a few weeks ago, titled “Secrets from the Deadline Cave,” came out, I put every single book about writing that she recommended on hold at the library. Story Genius was the one that came in first.

There’s a lot in the Story Genius about cognitive psychology and why we like reading, which is like catnip to me. But the real effective part of the book is the: now to satisfy this trait of the human mind, go do this thing about your story. The assignments range from “write three specific scenes from your characters childhood that affect who he/she is at the beginning of the story” to “look at your basic story structure and figure out where every single place of conflict could exist and put it in there.”

My story idea has new life, and I’m probably going to end up buying this book so I can keep it around to help keep me going. Is it this specific method? I don’t know. What I do know is that the method in Story Genius has given me a new angle to work on my particular idea. So yes, I’m recommending it.

Finally calling time on a book

I have been reading Alexander Hamilton since 2016 – three years ago. That’s when I added it to Goodreads, anyway. It was more than an idea in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s head, but not the full-on sensation it’s since become.

Hamilton first showed up in Chernow’s biography of George Washington, and Chernow was clearly taken with him. I wanted a follow-up biography about him after I read that one, so I was glad to discover that it had already been written.

So have I finished Alexander Hamilton? Sadly, no. It’s been pushed aside by other books in my to-read pile (I usually have more than one going at a time) and it’s been long enough that I’m finally calling time on it. I may go back to it some day, after all, it’s not like the book is bad. It just got overwhelmed by other things.

I would definitely recommend it if you see the musical and want to know more.

Grace Coddington seems like a fun person

A very sun-faded copy. I’m pretty sure the cover should be a uniform shade of orange.

Grace is, as advertised, Grace Coddington’s memoir. She is a hoot, and this is a fun story of a person who loves clothes and fashion and art practicing her craft throughout the mid- to late- twentieth century. She certainly sounds like a lively person to be around and being in the fashion world during that time seems like a hoot.

Unfortunately, I only got through about half of this book because, while she seems like a great person who is full of enthusiasm, the story got a bit repetitive (she’s in London! no Paris! now London again!) and it was more name-droppy than I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong, she’s just talking about her friends, but a little bit less of making sure we know she knows these people and more about fashion in the 1960s and beyond would have been better. It was eventually tiresome.

A moment in time captured

I love Paris to the Moon, I loved it the first time I read it in the early 2000s. It captures a particular moment in Paris, one that I suspect is no longer relevant. For example, it is true that in the late 1990s bistro food was not good. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. And for a place where many, many people had written home about the food? That wasn’t good. Now, I suspect, the daily food scene is better.

I re-read the essays this time, surprised at how much I remembered from a book I haven’t read in probably a decade. In no particular order: the caramelized tomatoes, how watching too much soccer makes it impossible to find the puck in a hockey game, the way you choose the place where you will give birth in a different country – re-reading these essays was like visiting an old friend.

Mostly, I love the overall vibe that he shows Paris having, not an overly romantic or easy one, but one of enjoying a life well-lived. A life where care is taken over the details like food or the park, and the way philosophy can invade the most basic of questions.

If you’re looking for a set of essays that show Paris as a place where you can actually live rather than as a romantic image of itself? Paris to the Moon is your book.