Sunday, November 18, 2007

First, we're readers

Photos by Andif, 4 weeks of changes

Around here we sometimes quote Donald Maass, who's a literary agent and a writer. I'm rereading one of his books, Writing the Breakout Novel, and I came across a question that's not just for writers, and which reminds me that every time I read a book about writing, it also turns out to be about life.

His question is:

What are your top three favorite novels of all time? He goes on to say, "No doubt you have far more than three, but choose three for starters."

Mine turned out to be: Lost Horizon by James Hilton, The Once and Future King by T. H. White, and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. I'm not somebody who re-reads novels, so I suspect I wouldn't find those as wonderful a second time around, but that doesn't matter. What I'm remembering is how they left me feeling hypnotized and exalted at the time I read them. There have been others that also did that, but these are the three that came to me for my list.

Then Maass asks, What do your three novels have in common?

I was pretty damned interested to find out that the things that came to my mind about my favs were: magic, idealism, transformation, revolution, and secrets.

What he's getting at, of course, is trying to nudge writers toward writing what we also love to read. But it seems to me that looking at what mesmerizes us in fiction may not be a bad way of identifying what inspires us in life, or even what's missing from our lives.

Want to play? Don't agonize too much. Just pick the three that pop to the top of your mind and stay there. You can have another three later, if you want to. (The Great Gatsby and The Lord of the Rings really want to squeeze into my list, but I'm sticking to my original three.)

Oh, and nobody gets to criticize your choices. That's an order. King Arthur says so.


AndiF said...

I can't even pick my top 3 authors, let alone top 3 books. The best I can do is my most loved book which is the first book I bought with my own money (in 1959) and which I still own: "The Wind in the Willows".

Monday picture post: there are several places I find myself constantly taking pictures of. These spots have a visually appealing but always somewhat different -- thanks to changes in the light, the seasons, and the forest itself -- aspect that can never be completely explored. Here's two weeks of a spot I call the Y-trees.




Tracy said...

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, We were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving: These are three that come to mind where I really remember spending time thinking about the story long after I finished reading it. Maybe one thing they have in common is that they all cover a great amount of time. A lifespan, more or less. They all deal with individual interpretation of experience and how perception changes over time.

I'm reading The Once and Future King to my kids right now. It doesn't feel as magical to me as it did the first time, but I love the way they are captivated by it. said...

Congrats, Conda on the sale!!!

Beth, a column? With your name on it? Super dooper!!

Rick, thank you so much for all those colorful cats. I'm stuck with the mundane when it comes to perception, though. This, because the ghost element is the part of the story that challenges reality and perception of same.

I think my cat gets blue falling into a vat of dye at a yarn factory or the Appalachian weaving consortium in Crossnore NC. Yawn.

katiebird said...

Andi -- I can hardly tell those are the same spot! Amazing how things changed over time. They're all lovely. But in very different ways.


Nancy (now that I've come up with my list I'll say that this was fun!),

My first instinct is the same as Andi's: I can't even pick 3 favorite authors!

But, I'm going to try to play. Mostly because you said we could play again as often as we want.

So. Right now (with my coffee half drunk & my cereal half eaten) my 3 favorite books are Pride & Prejudice (Austen), The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul (Adams) and Pigs have Wings (Wodehouse).


Can I point out one book that I think is worth arguing about if it shows up here today?

katiebird said...

Oh, Beth's column -- I read that last night as I was lurking.

Beth, That's so exciting and wonderful! When will it appear in print? Can we read it?

katiebird said...

And (more coffee would be good) Hi Ghost! I like the dye idea (rather than paint) -- the cat won't be crusty.

Maria Lima said...

I realize this answer would totally change depending on when I answer it. That said, right now, because of the season and my mood, I would list:
The Dark is Rising(series) by Susan Cooper (which I reread once a year, at least)
Melusine by Sarah Monette
Pretty much anything by Charles de Lint

I'm neck deep in the world of urban and rural (contemporary) fantasy right now...well, most of the time, really. :)

Rick Bylina said...

"Ironweed" by William Kennedy

"Captian Corelli's Mandalin" by Louis de Bernières (the movie paled in comparison)

"Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo
The 11:03 train was late. Across the tracks, the red leaves of the autumn woods waved in a stirring breeze, beckoning to me like a siren's song to take the nearly imperceptable path through the woods, and I mused that it was Frost's least taken one. The thought broke the snapshot moment, yanking me out of the momentary flight of fancy. The train arrived at 11:10, and I dutifully boarded. It was Monday. The song of responsibility sang louder than the siren's pull. The train jerked and pulled away for the quick sprint to the next station. At 11:16, I gazed at another slice of the woods as a handful of passengers boarded and smiled safe in the knowledge that the ever-changing woods were safe within my memories. I can take that path to imaginary places even while sitting in my pale tan cubicle surrounded by the Henry Miller filing cabinets, languishing ivy plants, and my duly authorized six gallon garbage. Life is good for those with an eye to imagine it so. said...

Golly, Nancy, I do not like the idea of one's 3 favorite novels. It is almost an impossible task. Okay here goes.

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, Roddy Doyle.
The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton.

Tomorrow, the list might be Catch 22, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird. For Wednesday I have Executioner's Song, 92 in the Shade, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.

For the holiday, I tend to glance backwards and end up with Don Quixote, Tom Sawyer, The Little Girl Who lived Down the Lane.

Friday begins with The World According to Garp, Accidental Tourist, Le Voyer (Alain Robbe-Grillet) ... and so on.

I cheated. Sorry.

Dear, sweet Katie, you have just about flipped me over. :-) I am rather smitten by Crusty Cat of a sudden.

katiebird said...

Ghost, and I'm about flipped too. Mister used to call babies Crusty Angels. Can a cat be an angle? said...

Yes, yes. Cats can be angels. Often animals are messenger ghosts and, depending on where you believe ghosts might live, the message may be from heaven.

I've accounts where someone's most beloved and previously "passed" pet returns at their death to lead them away.

Nancy P said...


Andi, I'd love to post small versions of those side by side, so we can compare the changes week by week. You have dial-up, right? Would doing that be a problem for dial-up folks?

Nancy P said...

Hi, Tracy. Andi's photos would be a good graphic to go with your thoughts about what ties your three books together.

I'm almost always disappointed when I pick up a beloved book again years later, The Great Gatsby being the only exception I can remember. When I read Lost Horizon again many years later, I saw fascism I had never noticed when I was 16, and I can think of another book that mesmerized me once and which I loathe now. But reading a once-beloved book to kids who are captivated all over again. . .nice. said...

Jerri, just wanted to say that I adore your driving a manuscript to the p.o. by midnight to meet a deadline. Too fun!

I also love straight non-fiction (ala Bob Newhart II) and have always wanted to write a legit non-fiction book that was secretly a novel. My first novel was titled "How to Build a Better Birdhouse."

I never managed to pull it off, though. I did have the guy writing the book (illustrated with step-by-step birdhouse designs) cut off his finger (and thereby a warning to the reader to use a table-saw properly).

I remember his wedding ring rolling across the shop floor.

His wife eventually asks for a divorce, Etc. Hey, look, I was a kid when I came up with this. :-)

Jerri, want to collaborate?
How to Build Your Own House? Log cabin. Coffin.... How to Write a Mystery Novel in 100 Days, by killing anyone who gets in your way. ?

Nancy P said...

So Maria, ghost, kb, and rick, of course you don't have to answer this, but what do your first three novels have in common?

When I see that I put "magic" first with my three, I can feel the heart of my problem with my current book, which is that so far there's no magic or miracle in it and I REALLY want that.

Rick. . .so nice.

kb and ghost. . .crusty cats. Makes me smile.

Nancy P said...

katiebird, go ahead and name the book--before somebody else lists it--and then you won't break King Arthur's rule. :)

AndiF said...

Nancy I'm not on dial-up anymore. I have graduated to satellite -- not as fast as cable/dsl and can disappear in a rain storm but way, way faster/better than phone lines. Technology comes to the forest!

I think one of the problems with choosing favorites is that I don't know what that means -- best written? most moving? most influential? most pleasurable?

Anyway, think about Wind in the Willows inspired to think about the three kids books that influenced me most -- so I'm adding two more books:
. Mara, Daughter of the Nile, Eloise Jarvis McGraw
. Caddie Woodlawn, Carol Ryrie Brink.

And I know what all three books have in common for me -- they are stories, at least in part, about how the value of people who don't and won't fit in with their proper roles in life. (Yes, I do identify with Toad.)

AndiF said...

oops -- errata: they are stories, at least in part, about the value of people who don't and won't fit in with their proper roles in life.

BTW, through magic I have a picture of the ytrees in the next week or so.

Jen said...

This is the kind of list that would be different on any given day that I were asked to make it. This morning, what comes to mind:

A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Identity (various facets), quests, secrets, power relations, heavy symbolism, fate, magic/psychic phenomena.

And yeah, I generally write about most of that, except "quests" is a bit of a stretch as a descriptor of my work.

PS. HA, Tracy, I swear I wasn't peeking at your test paper before I hit "publish".

Nancy P said...

lol, jen meet tracy.

jen, would I like The Gunslinger? :) What's it about?

These exercises are easier for me because my top two never change. I was infected with magic and mysticism at an early age. Also "glamour" in both the magic and tragic (Fitzgerald) senses of the word. Not even Nancy Drew or horse books can overcome all that in my case.

Jen said...

D'oh! I mean, before I wrote the post -- of course I peeked at your test paper before I hit "publish". :D

no have coffee yet. words hard.

katiebird said...

"The Book" will remain unnamed. But, I promise to obey the rules and keep my mouth shut if it happens to appear on this page.

Those books have in common: Humor, The affection the authors have for their characters, (Mostly) Nice people treating people nicely. And worriers.

Jen said...

Nancy, I'm not sure if you would. My sense of the series is that its themes are presented with a very masculine sensitivity, and I don't know how much you're into that. I find it fascinating, but then I'm very into gender in the theoretical-academic sense, so it's interesting to me to see how King spins very much the same themes as I do, sometimes in identical ways, other times in ways I wouldn't have thought of.

I still haven't finished the last two books in the series but I thought the first three were truly excellent novels, some of King's finest work (which, I know, some people think he's a hack but I think when he's on, he's on fire). Lots about magic and fate and being "called" to important questy things. Fantastic, creative characters, deep and complex. Delightful symbolism. A couple of truly scary parts. Great adventure.

Jen said...

errata: they are stories, at least in part, about the value of people who don't and won't fit in with their proper roles in life.

Interesting, Andi -- that would fit a lot of my faves, too, along with the idea of empowering oneself by creating one's own "proper" role.

Nancy P said...

katiebird. . ."worriers". . .lol!

I may give the first one a try, Jen, just to see. I agree with you about King. And you know what? He's been at it for so long now, and he has, god knows, a big enough body of work, that the world can just damn well forgive him some intermittent hackiness. When a writer is that creative that the words pour out of him, I say we can be grateful for the amazing amount of high quality that IS in there.

Have you read his son's novel? He writes under the name Joe Hill I loved it, and the name escapes me except that "Heart" is in it.

Nancy P said...

kb? If nobody names the book today, you can tell us tomorrow. :)

Conda said...

Here's my list: A Confederacy of Dunces, Wind in the Willows and One for the Money (Evanovitch). You said to list 'em right off the top of my head, Nancy--and as I did, it occurred to me what I loved: the characters.

Oh, and also I reread Writing the Breakout Novel.

Now, as I read the list, I just want to curl up next to the fire (gloomy day today) and read The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, The Outsiders, anything by Wodehouse or Stephen King (just reread Dolores Claiborne--what a great novel), well you get the idea.

Beth, where's your column?! Congrats! And thanks for the congrats for my short story, all. And as usual, gorgeous, gorgeous photos Andif!

Back to working and lurking, sigh.

Jen said...

Have you read his son's novel? He writes under the name Joe Hill I loved it, and the name escapes me except that "Heart" is in it.

Not yet, but I've read some of Tabitha King's (S's wife) work, and I really like her stuff, too. Talented family, that.

FARfetched said...

Man... that's difficult. I've read soooo many books, and now I have to pick three? I might be able to pick the top three in any of several genres. :-P I'm going to change the subject for a moment…

Ghost, there was a story in (IIRC) an elementary school reading book, about some kids who wanted to enter their white kitty in a cat show. She (the cat) got out & played in the mud the morning of the show, and the kids where desperate to get her cleaned up, so they went through a cat-bathing ordeal but used the first thing they could find — some kind of fabric stuff that turned the fur blue.

OK, enough stalling… with the same caveat as Maria's, and not in order:

Lord of the Rings (and everyone's geek alarm goes off)

Firestarter by Stephen King — I would have picked The Waste Lands, the third Dark Tower book, except for the cliffhanger ending.

The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis

What do they have in common? At the moment, sitting in a boring meeting, what comes to mind is that they all show the Divine working in the lives of the characters to help them overcome. The effort has to be made, though, of the characters' free will. (Thus That Hideous Strength is disqualified — the characters struggle, but in the end they & their efforts are simply set aside.)

Rick Bylina said...

First off, I agree with Ghost that if you ask the question on a different day after I've had chocolate or a diet coke, my list might be slightly different. It's more like these three choices were plucked from among a dozen books that have influenced me in some manner at some time in my life.

And that is partly the answer to you question, "Why these books."

"Ironweed" by William Kennedy has such a brilliant first chapter that I put the book down convinced it couldn't get more personally involving...and when I picked it back up and finished it, I was suprised how well it continued on.

I got caught up in the sweeping panaroma of "Captian Corelli's Mandalin" by Louis de Bernières (the movie paled in comparison) and only at the very end did you realize how true she was to her only love even after all those years.

Once you overcome the political mind-drubbing in the unabridged version of "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo, you are taken so totally away into a story of two men justifying their single-minded purposes, that it is mind blowing.

But the biggest connection for these three stories (and the fourth on the list "Sons and Lovers") is that the ultimate resolution to the story, the final key that makes the story resonate is withheld to the absolute last few words or sentences, keeping you riveted to the tiniest bit of the human condition that needs to be savored to make the story stick for a long time, keep you thinking about it, and caring about the destiny of the characters.

Hope that helps.

FARfetched said...

Evanovitch! Lordy, Conda, but she writes some hilarious stuff! Stephanie's granny especially has me LMAO (and I have a substantial amount of A to LO). Maybe it's because Stephanie & I both live in a free-range insane asylum — The Burg is like an urban version of the rural county I live in, plus a generous helping of Euro-ethnicity. said...

Conda, I started to put a Stephanie Plum on my list, but chickened out. :-) Also, A is For Alibi and a Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Far, I like the Cat Show scenario really well, too. Sadly, though, I'm interested in my cat being a different color after it's dead. And I hate putting kids and dead in the same story.

Then again... I wonder how many ghost children stories I could come up with? A ghost school could be very scary, actually. said...

Ghost School: You Better Give a Valentine to Everyone. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beth said...

Boy, late to the party again. Kudos to Manchester Airport for free wifi!

Favorite books: Lord of the Rings, since 8th grade - I reread it every year or two, and was in hog heaven when the movies came out. (Hi fellow geek Far.)

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.

And I'm cheating too - the entire Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. It's one really really long book cut into 7 pieces.

What do they have in common? They're really long. :-) And involve a degree of fantasy (time travel, utopia, and ring quests). And a strong male main character...grasping at straws here.

Thanks for the congrats on the column - I'm meeting the editor tomorrow to work out the details, then will tell you more.

I'm going to save all of your titles and add them to my 'must read' list.

Heading to the plane in a wee bit - hope everyone has a great day!I'll wave as we fly over your houses..

Man Eegee said...

Across the Wire by Luis Alberto Urrea, It by Steven King, and....A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle.

I'm with Jen, the answers will most definitely be different on another day given the mood.

Common Threads: content-wise - absolutely nothing. literary-wise - all three painted such vivid pictures of their respective worlds and characters that I became fully immersed in the created reality. The emotions evoked were/are real and impacting, which made these titles stand out this afternoon.

Kelly McCullough said...

Hi all, back from conference land where a wonderful but thoroughly exhausting time was had-I slept 11 hours last night.

Conda, Beth, congrats to both!

On the books front, I can't do it. I've tried many times, but I am simply incapable of winnowing it down below about 20.

Best I can do is my 6 most often reread:

J.R.R.Tolkien-Lord of the Rings
Neil Stephenson-Zodiac
Tim Powers-Anubis Gates
Roger Zelazney-Nine Princes in Amber
Martha Wells-The Element of Fire
Nina Kiriki Hoffman-The Thread that Binds the Bones

And there are a dozen more that I've reread close to as often. The only thing they all have in common is that they're ripping good yarns by writer who write F&SF among other things.

FARfetched said...

Whoops, just skimmed through the tail end of yesterday's comments.

Nancy, yes, we eat chicken. I eat it based on the "hair of the dog that bit ya" principle. Or maybe the "last laugh" principle.

Kelly, I'm not sure why I don't read much Zelazney — what I've read of his I've liked. Jack Vance as well, although he rides a little closer to the "too weird to relate to" edge at times.

Maria Lima said...

Nancy, you asked what tied mine together.

Primarily, it's magic, with a healthy helping of interesting characters and a heck of a fascinating story to round it out. There's always a dollop of mystery, too.

boran2 said...

Ugh, this it too hard.

1) For Whom the Bell Tolls

2) The War of the Flowers

3)...Umm, I'm still thinking. Okay, come back to me. ;-)