Archive for the ‘Quotations’ Category

Cobble’s Knot

Thursday, February 26th, 2015

This is how I feel about plotting a novel. Like Maniac Magee pulling apart Cobble’s Knot. I just want to find the end, to see the whole thing unravel and make sense. Not there yet.

To the ordinary person, Cobble’s Knot was about
as friendly as a nest of yellow jackets. Besides the
tangle itself, there was the weathering of that first year,
when the Knot hung outside and became hard as a
rock. You could barely make out the individual
strands. It was grimy, moldy, crusted over. Here and
there a loop stuck out, maybe big enough to stick
your pinky finger through, pitiful testimony to the
challengers who had tried and failed.

And there stood Maniac, turning the Knot, check-
ing it out. Some say there was a faint grin on his face,
kind of playful, as though the Knot wasn’t his enemy
at all, but an old pal just playing a little trick on him.
Others say his mouth was more grim than grin, that
his eyes lit up like flashbulbs, because he knew he
was finally facing a knot that would stand up and fight,
a worthy opponent.

He lifted it in his hands to feel the weight of it. He
touched it here and touched it there, gently, daintily.
He scraped a patch of crust off with his fingernail. He
laid his fingertips on it, as though feeling for a pulse.
Only a few people were watching at first, and half
of them were Heck’s Angels, a roving tricycle gang
of four and five year olds. Most of them had had
sneaker lace or yo yo knots untied by Maniac, and
they expected this would only take a couple of seconds
longer. When the seconds became minutes, they
started to get antsy, and before ten minutes had
passed, they were zooming off in search of somebody
to terrorize.

The rest of the spectators watched Maniac poke
and tug and pick at the knot. Never a big pull or yank,
just his fingertips touching and grazing and peck
pecking away, like some little bird.
“What’s he doin’?” somebody said.
“What’s taking so long?”
“He gonna do it or not?”

After an hour, except for a few more finger size
loops, all Maniac had to show for his trouble were
the flakes of knot crust that covered the table.
“He ain’t even found the end of the string yet,
somebody grumbled, and almost everybody but
Amanda took off.

Maniac never noticed. He just went on working.
By lunchtime they were all back, and more kept
coming. Not only kids, but grownups, too, black and
white, because Cobble’s Corner was on Hector, and
word was racing through the neighborhoods on both
the east and west sides of the street.

What people saw they didn’t believe.

The knot had grown, swelled, exploded. It was a
frizzy globe, the newspaper the next day described
it as a “gigantic hairball.” Now, except for a packed
in clump at the center, it was practically all loops. You
could look through it and see Maniac calmly working
on the other side.

“He found the end!” somebody gasped, and the
corner burst into applause.

Meanwhile, inside, Cobble’s was selling pizza left
and right, not to mention zeps (a Two Mills type of
hoagie), steak sandwiches, strombolis, and gallons of
soda. Mr. Cobble himself came out to offer Maniac
some pizza, which Maniac of course politely turned
down. He did accept an orange soda, though, and then
a little kid, whose sneaker laces Maniac had untied
many a time, handed up to him a three pack of
Tastykake butterscotch Krimpets.

After polishing off the Krimpets, Maniac did the
last thing anybody expected: he lay down and took a
nap right there on the table, the knot hanging above
him like a small hairy planet, the mob buzzing all
around him. Maniac knew what the rest of them
didn’t: the hardest part was yet to come. He had to
find the right routes to untangle the mess, or it would
just close up again like a rock and probably stay that
way forever. He would need the touch of a surgeon,
the alertness of an owl, the cunning of three foxes,
and the foresight of a grand master in chess. To ac-
complish that, he needed to clear his head, to flush
away all distraction, especially the memory of the but-
terscotch Krimpets, which had already hooked him.
In exactly fifteen minutes, he woke up and started
back in.

Like some fairy tale tailor, he threaded the end
through the maze, dipping and doodling through
openings the way he squiggled a football through a
defense. As the long August afternoon boiled along,
the exploded knot hairball would cave in here, cave
in there. It got lumpy, out of shape, saggy. The Times
photographer made starbursts with his camera. The
people munched on Cobble’s pizza and spilled across
Hector from sidewalk to sidewalk and said “Ouuuu!”
and Ahhhh!”

And then, around dinnertime, a huge roar went up,
a volcano of cheers. Cobble’s Knot was dead. Undone.
Gone. It was nothing but string.

— from Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

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Posted in Quotations |


Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

From Nancy Kress, talking about her new book Yesterday’s Kin on John Scalzi’s

A concept is not a story. To turn my enchantment with mitochondrial DNA into something with the possibility of enchanting anyone else, I needed characters, plot, conflict, setting. This stalled the entire project for a year, while I pondered. Pondering is what writers do best, since it has the virtue of feeling productive without the pain of actually confronting a keyboard. Eventually, however, pondering must end and writing begin. For SF, aliens are often a good place to start.

Why yes, Nancy, that’s in precisely. Adding your fascinating book to my to-read list as we speak.


Re-Reading The Blind Assassin

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

Blind AssassinOne of the myths about working at a bookstore is that aside from selling the books on your shelves, your job is to just to read all day. Ahhh, that sounds lovely. Well, while reading is certainly implicit, if anything, I read less than I did before I started working there (though my cumulative knowledge of books in general expanded ten fold). Now, this is all relative – I’m a big reader so “less” for me is still considerably above average for most – but one of the ways I planned to begin my recalibration from “bookstore employee” to “self-employee” was to re-read one of my favorite books, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

Hot damn people, Ms. Atwood is good. Her books are not happy books – they are striking books. They leave you stricken. They challenge and ignite. I wanted to re-read her because in the past when I’ve read The Blind Assassin, I have wanted to peel the words from the page and put them in my own mouth to make them my own. I bet that if you dig around in the archives here, you’ll find another post in which I’ve said the exact same thing. I don’t care. Her writing is exquisite.

When I first read The Blind Assassin, I was in college. It was a secret Santa gift from a friend. I read it at precisely the right time, you know what I mean? When a book seems to be perfectly aligned with your mood, interests, and needs at a specific time in your life? This book was it for me. I was taking workshops where we were reading First Light by Charles Baxter and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. The Blind Assassin was this gripping, intense, literary book that braided together a historical narrative, science fiction, romantic affairs, news clippings, a character driven storyline (or two or three) and above all a mystery. I remember getting two-thirds of the way through and the heightened sense of tension as I began to suspect the ending; the mounting sense of “Is that it? Am I right?” as I barreled through the final pages. It was the sort of book I desperately wanted to write myself.

It had a huge influence on my writing. If you read any of my work from college you’ll see I began to emulate her style of metaphor, her tendency to end paragraphs with potent, impacting sentences or images. Edgy, beautiful, dark passages like:

“The snow fell, softly at first, then in hard pellets that stung the skin like needles. The sun set in the afternoon, the sky changed from washed blood to skim milk. Smoke poured from the chimneys, from the furnaces stoked with coal. The bread-wagon horses left piles of steaming brown buns on the street which then froze solid. Children threw them at one another. The clocks struck midnight, over and over, every midnight a deep blue-black riddled with icy stars, the moon white bone. I looked out the bedroom window, down to the sidewalk, through the branches of the chestnut tree. Then I turned out the light.” (334)

Since reading The Blind Assassin for the first time, I’ve read a ton of her work – short fiction, novels, poetry, essays, book reviews. When you read deeply of a writer, you almost get a character study of her – her voice, revisited themes, memories that made a big enough impact that the show up in story after story, different iterations and different angles. I don’t like everything she’s written: I didn’t enjoy Alias Grace and felt like Lady Oracle was an undeveloped precursor to her vastly superior (and one of my favorites) Cat’s Eye. I love the sharp left turn of Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood. I have only met Atwood once, when she signed my book along with two hundred other people, but I feel like I know her. Know her style at least.

This was my fourth time reading The Blind Assassin. I almost wrote here “I wonder if you can re-read a book too many times” but then I realized that isn’t precisely it. When you know a book well enough, know it’s twists and turns, it can color your entire reading. I realized as I dug into it again, eagerly at first and then with some dismay, that the book was so much heavier, darker, and longer than I remembered. All of the things I knew and loved about Atwood’s style were there but, well, I wasn’t. The reader I am at this moment is not the reader that clung to those pages on her first, second, and third read. It was a much harder read this time around, knowing the fates of these characters, knowing how far they had to go and how they’d be scarred by it. I sat reading in the early summer sun, trying to understand a little more about the writer I want to be.

I thought I wanted to be the next Margaret Atwood, once upon a time. In a lot of ways, I still strive towards her precision of voice and images, her tightly woven character plots. But I’ve read a lot of books since then, met a lot of writers, written a number of stories. In school, The Blind Assassin gave me that taste of sci-fi, when I was knee deep in the “literature” of my undergraduate writing courses. It showed me that stories didn’t have to be linear or all told in flashbacks – that they could move sideways or meander between the worlds of truth, fiction, and further fiction. I would still recommend it to people, wholeheartedly, though it isn’t an easy book. If you are new to Atwood, I might recommend starting with her short story collection Moral Disorder or her classic The Handmaid’s Tale.

This is an extremely long way of saying that while still in the pantheon of my favorite works, I’m not sure The Blind Assassin is number one anymore (sorry, Ms. Atwood!) How have your reading tastes changed over time? Did you have a favorite that didn’t hold up to re-reading at a later date?


Bird by Bird

Thursday, May 19th, 2011


If I could find a way to quote this entire book to you without actually having to type it or infringing on all kinds of copyright hooha, I would. It was lying on a table in the used section of the bookstore… and something about the title Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life or the sun-faded checkered cover caught my attention. What did birds have to do with writing and life? The back of the book includes the quote from which the title is derived:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” (pp 18 –19, Bird by Bird)

Bird. By. Bird. Yes yes yes. (more…)


A little life wisdom

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

From Dear Sugar’s letter to her 20-year-old self:

Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.

Posted in Quotations |


Thursday, June 18th, 2009

The ennui is setting in again. All the more reason to post and to write. Peel off the ennui like potato skins and find the firm flesh beneath, and bake it to tenderness. Add a little creme fraiche… can you tell I’ve been reading Julia Child’s My Life in France?

I love it. It is full of such joie de vivre that reading it has been pulling me out of my mental slump. It took Julia Child ten years to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking; ten years of relentless testing, revision, collaboration, rejection, travel, and travail. TEN YEARS. Also: she did not begin until her mid-thirties. It could have equally been titled: Mastering the Art of Patience. There needs to be a book with that title. If there was, I would read it.

Julia does a good deal of name dropping, but I forgive her that because she is just so fun to read. Her descriptions of the French countryside, the delicious food, the quirky characters she meets, all blend together in a delicious soup of living life to the utmost. A pioneer among women. All six-foot-two of her.

The tone of My Life in France reminds me a lot of the tone in We Took To the Woods by Louise Rich. Written in the 1940′s, Rich elaborates on the rich (pun intended) life that she and her family live in rural Maine, despite the lack of electricity, indoor plumbing, and mail/supplies delivered once a month by boat. Again, you get the sense that she loves the life she is living, including all it’s strange ups and downs, characters and wild beasts, weather and laundry. I wonder if there is a genre out there of these wonderful autobiographies of enthusiastic women. Maybe it’s the writing style of that era (though Julia Child’s book was completed in 2004, it follows the events in her life from the 40′s and 50′s on) that makes even the worse things seem like just bumps in the road of such a fun life.

Maybe that’s where the ennui comes from—the feeling like I’m not having enough fun! Greg and I have plenty of fun in our own way, but sometimes I feel like I’m not taking enough pleasure in the everyday things that I do. Or not seeking out the fun things that I can make happen in my life right now. My First Full-Length Publication may be a long way (ten years??) off, but there must be things I can do right now to make that happen and have fun at the same time.

I am guilty (as I like to think many of us are… anyone? anyone?) of comparing my life to those around me. And clearly, the grass is always greener; whether it’s the farming life of my sister or my friend K’s fellowship to study in Qatar or Julia Child’s success-against-all-odds of publishing a foundational cookbook, I take one look and think Maybe that’s what I should be doing with my life. Maybe that would make me a better person.

Instead I need to focus on the small and wonderful things of my own: making (and then eating!) fresh pasta; rubbing the leaves of our little basil plant and smelling the mellow, grassy scent; emerging from the subway into the bright and windy light of a morning in Cambridge; meandering conversations with Greg over Chinese food or in the twilight before sleep; devouring a new book; the satisfaction of sitting down for 20 minutes or an hour and actually writing something. I want to take these things and magnify them until they fill my days and vision with an uncontainable joy. I am convinced that, despite arguments to the contrary, a writer does not have to be depressed and/or melancholy to write. The happiness can inspire as much as sadness can. That writing when we are happy and everything is fine is just as important and can take as much courage as writing when things are horrible.

As a sincere kick-in-the-butt, some inspiration from Julia Child:

I sighed. It just might be that The Book was unpublishable.

I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. I had gotten the job done, I was proud of it, and now I had a whole batch of foolproof recipes to use. Besides, I had found myself through the arduous writing process. Even if we were never able to publish our book, I had discovered my raison d’etre in life, and would continue my self-training and teaching.  (Child 217)

And dear Louise Rich:

There is something so smug about people who say ‘Oh no, I am never bored!’ It sounds a little like ‘Who, me? With my rich inner mine of resources? ME? With all my rare memories and rich philosophies?’ I hate people like that. They’re infuriating, and I think they are liars as well. Everyone is bored sometimes. It is a painful illness, and completely undeserved of moral censure. (Rich 182)

Please read them, when you get a chance, you won’t regret it.


Wielding the scalpel

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009

Okay, so I started writing this post about a month and a half ago. But I think it still bears elaborating on.

I’ve been reading quite a mix of books lately. In March: Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series and the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. In April: re-read several of Jack McDevitt’s books and some Octavia Butler (more on her later). In May: I have read Marilyn Robinson’s poignant Housekeeping, begun (and become totally hooked!) on Brian Naughton’s “Y: The Last Man” comic series. But for March book club, we read Lolita, which was my first exposure to Nabakov ever. After having been swimming in the realm of science fiction and fantastical fiction for a little while, I’ll admit I was wary dipping back into “classical” literature. But Lolita, despite it’s difficult subject matter, was a real treat.



Softly and distinctly…

Friday, February 13th, 2009

From the short story “Snow” by John Crowley:

I think there are two different kinds of memory, and only one kind gets worse as I get older: the kind where, by effort of will, you can reconstruct your first car or your serial number or the name and figure of your high school physics teacher—a Mr. Holm, in a gray suit, a bearded guy, skinny, about thirty. The other kind doesn’t worsen; if anything it grows more intense. The sleepwalking kind, the kind you stumble into as into rooms with secret doors and suddenly find yourself sitting not on your front porch but in a classroom. You can’t at first think where or when, and a bearded, smiling man is turning in his hand a glass paperweight, inside which a little cottage stands in a swirl of snow.

There is no access to Georgie, except that now and then, unpredictably, when I am sitting on the porch or pushing a grocery cart or standing at the sink, a memory of that kind will visit me, vivid and startling, like a hypnotist’s snap of fingers.

Or like that funny experience you sometimes have, on the point of sleep, of hearing your name called softly and distinctly by someone who is not there.

Posted in Quotations |

Describing the Indescribable

Friday, February 6th, 2009

Harlan Ellison describes the sound an earthquake makes in his introduction “The Fault in My Lines” to his collection Slippage:

The unimaginative say it sounds like a train coming towards you. Bullshit. Nothing like a train… Trains have a decent sound to them. A good sound. Tough, but willing to accomodate you. This damn thruster had absolutely nothing in common with a train. Then there are those whose best analogy is. “It was a deep rumbling noise.” Yer ass. A deep rumbling noise is what you get out of your stomach when you’ve had too many  baby-backs and hot links. A cranky bear makes a deep rumbling sound. The radiator. The water pipes trying to carry the load. Krusty the Klown makes a deep rumbling noise. I’ll tell you precisely what that muther sounded like:

Ever see one of those Japanese samurai movies featuring the masterless ronin who travels around with his baby son in a wooden cart that rolls on big wooden wheels? The Lone Wolf and Cub films? What they call the “baby cart” series?

Okay, then: you are familiar with “corduroy” roads”? They were common and plentiful in this country up until about forty years ago. Mostly, you could find them in backwoods or rural areas, where dirt roads were still in use, macadam hadn’t made its inroads, superhighways were distant myths, and country roads were used for hauling heavy loads. So, to make them capable of supporting the weight of a tractor pulling  a backhoe, or a fully loaded hay wagon, logs were laid transversely, producing a kind of ribbed look–something like those speed bumps in parking lots that make you slow down–and the buried logs gave the dirt road the topographical surface of the cotten cloth we call courduroy.

When you drove down such a road, there was a metronomic bump-bump-bump sound. I’m trying to be specific here, trying to describe the indescribable. Explain the color red to someone blind from birth.

What it sounded like was this: a gigantic wooden-wheeled baby cart, as big as a mountain, bump-bump-bumping its way down a corduroy road. Underneath you. Deep underneath you.

Harlan Ellison is a crazy skilled writer. And it’ll sound strange, but I love his introductions to his collections almost more than his stories sometimes. Ellison’s work is what you might call “edgy” but in the sense that it’s constantly playing on the edge of something–of form, of subject, of fiction versus fact. Many of his short stories you wouldn’t really call stories in the traditional sense. Some of them wander and transverse genres. Some of my favorite stories from this collection include: “Where I Shall Dwell in the Next World,” “Mefisto in Onyx,” “The Few, The Proud,” “Dragon on the Bookshelf,” and “Scartaris, June 28th.”

I’ve read several collections by Ellison and I must say, I can’t read all of them. Again, when I say edgy, I mean edge of what we can handle, as readers. Many of his stories are extremely, often violently, graphic. He’s testing our limits, as readers, as voyeurs. I could barely make it part way through Deathbird Stories, before having to put it aside. Not for the faint of heart.

The earlier quote I cite for a reason because it says something very particular about writing and writers: “I’m trying to be specific here, trying to describe the indescribable.” To me, this is a big part of what writing is about. It’s about taking on the limits of language and of personal experience, and trying to find universal terms to express a very specific sound, feeling, taste, etc. or something otherwise indescribable. It’s about creating a collage of words to create a new and unique expression of something. After reading Ellison’s description of an earthquake, I know exactly what it sounds like. His specificity may seem silly at first, but in that last line, when you understand his description in a sensory way, it’s specificity makes everything crystallize and become utterly clear.

I find that it’s these moments of specificity that bring so much meaning to a good work of prose. When you understand the tumbled backstory of a character well enough to understand the impact a particular song or scene has on them–that speaks worlds. Because as individuals we are made up of so many parts that each experience is colored by the many facetted window we view it through. Layers upon layers of history color everything. So seeing a man put on his hat just so, or the scent of roasting coffee beans, means something entirely different to each person. I love exploring these kinds of meanings. It’s a way to wake us up to other people’s perceptions. 

I think writers are constantly trying to, as Ellison says, “[e]xplain the color red to someone blind from birth.” We are trying to explain an teach others new ways to perceive old things, or how to perceive new things altogether. I find myself trying to push beyond the boundaries of my own mind to look at things from another perspective. What would mankind look like to outsiders? What critical sense are we missing? What is our potential? What are our limits? Big questions, small bits of answers.