Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Uncomfortable Mind of an Artist

It can sometimes seem as though would-be artists (including writers) cultivate chaos, doubt, and drama in their own lives because they think that therein lies the path to true creativity, or because they think it is glamorous to be a "suffering artist." I have not always been as understanding of these people as perhaps I should be.

Alison has recently started a series of articles for SDMW about how the pursuit of beauty (something she sees as the activity of all artists) is both alluring and crushing. It is one way in which natural law asserts itself and raises the great questions of human existence. There is a lot of food for thought in what she says. Her second article, in particular, helped me to see the struggling, chaotic, searching, artistic-type in a new light.

I recommend that you read both "Order, Beauty, and the Urge to Create" and also "Science, Beauty, and the Law that Kills."

On a related note, When Every Day is Judgement Day is another article by a different author (who comes from what seems to be a mainstream secular perspective) on a related topic. I was fascinated by her characterization of perfectionism as an attempt to drive a (futile and crippling) bargain with fate.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Why I Won't Post as Much for a While



I have been wanting to (a). focus on fiction in a more disciplined way, and (b). be pushed to improve my writing. Over Christmas I decided that the perfect solution would be to take an online class. I need to take it now, since there is another baby Mussmann on the way (due this July) and newborns aren't always very good at allowing their mothers to spend hours on the computer. If you know what I mean.

Therefore, I have registered for a novel writing class for Winter Quarter. The goal of the class is to produce a complete novel outline as well as a polished fifty pages of the novel. I'm very excited about working on my story concept and about immersing myself in the world of fiction for a few months. Hooray!

The only sad part is that, because my writing time is limited, I probably won't be able to blog much. If I vanish from this space until April, fear not, I am not dead--merely busy, and hopefully producing a masterpiece-ish tome of insight, adventure, and pleasing sentence structures.


Friday, January 2, 2015

The Myth of Arthur, the Problem of Articulate Villains, and Suzannah Rowtree’s Novel




I just finished my Advanced Reading copy (yes, it does make me feel delightfully important to be the recipient of an Advanced Reading copy) of Suzannah Rowntree’s novel, Pendragon’s Heir. The book is essentially a retelling of the story of Camelot, and therefore an exploration of the elusive, tragically costly, yet beautiful vision of building a city of light upon earth. Our young protagonist, Blanche, has been raised in Edwardian England. However, she discovers very early in the story that she is both the subject of prophecy and the daughter and heir of King Arthur. Or at least, she probably is--gossip about her mother’s chastity has sown doubt in some minds. Initially resistant to the idea of giving up her pleasant life in order to re-enter the medieval world of errant knights and rampaging villains, Blanche gradually matures into her role of heiress to a struggling kingdom. Meanwhile, her relationship with the impetuous, gallant (and admiring) Sir Percival also grows.


I soon found myself caring about the protagonists and enjoying all of the characters. Did I mention that there are several of the fey folk in this story? They are delightfully handled, and I am a sucker for well-portrayed fey folk. The relationships between characters are nuanced and often unexpected, and I was impressed by the action sequences and the author’s ability to write so many tense, believable, non-repetitive scenes of combat (although I admit that I know absolutely nothing about how to fight, and might not notice if the blows and techniques were unrealistic). In addition, the story explores significant themes. It is satisfying overall and demonstrates the degree to which the author has immersed herself in medieval and Arthurian imagery. I recommend that you read it.


In fact, the book is so good that I feel free to critique and analyze it as freely as if it came from the presses of a major publishing company. There is no need for me to be “kind” to the author by keeping any complaints, quibbles, or questions to myself. The pacing of the book is not perfect. Although both the beginning and end are taut and fast-paced, there was a section in the middle that felt a little too slow and episodic. I think this is because the main threads of the overall plot (and the relationships between the main characters) were allowed to sink out of sight while the characters gathered information and experienced minor adventures. The information and the adventures were needed for the overall story, but did not convey as much of a feeling of forward momentum. Some readers may disagree with this, and argue that I merely have a short attention span for knightly adventures.


I also find myself deeply struck by the problem of Simon Corbin, an articulate character who attempts to prevent Blanche from taking up her role as heir. In the language of a free-thinking Edwardian skeptic, he rejects belief in God as well as the idea that anyone owes a duty to a kingdom, a higher power, or a moral code. He argues for modern progress instead of feudal virtue. In a later scene, he challenges an idealistic knight with the argument that, just as even the “best” leaders sin, and just as good men use ignoble methods in war and conflict, it is delusional to believe that right can be defended without doing wrong. Ultimately, the conflict of the book could be said to be between these two positions: between those who wish to use only ethical means to create a kingdom patterned on visions of heaven (even though they know this struggle appears doomed), and those who wish to use any means necessary to create a kingdom according to their own ideas of what would be best.


On the one hand, I commend the author for creating Simon Corbin, because he is no straw man. It adds realism that our hero and heroine cannot best him in debate. However, I rather wonder if some readers (especially those who do not share the author’s beliefs) will not find Mr. Corbin’s arguments the more compelling (I once ran into this problem in a short story of my own: I tried to let both sides speak for themselves, and my liberal teacher thought that my story had made a much stronger case for liberal relativism than for conservative beliefs, because those were the arguments that resonated with her). Will such readers wonder if someone like Corbin might not have made a better ruler than a king who allows random knights to run around, walloping each other into an early grave, while the peasants do all the actual work? After all, Mr. Corbin is the only one who addresses “realistic” issues such as sanitation and the suffering of the poor.


The motivations of the good characters are harder to put forth in tidy, convincing arguments, and they rest more heavily on what might uncharitably be called mystical naivete. Here of course we see, in a nutshell, the challenge of a Christian author who speaks from her own perspective while trying to avoid heavy-handedly “proving” her own point, or pausing the narrative for a discussion of theology. If one speaks too often or too directly about God, one risks alienating non-Christian readers or of failing to remain in the role of novelist. If one approaches philosophical and religious themes more obliquely, one can have trouble providing a full, compelling picture of one’s beliefs.


I have been asking myself if Miss Rowtree should have handled her story any differently. It might have strengthened her tale if the good characters had defined Arthur’s kingdom more concretely, and, in particular, truly acknowledged the humanity and needs of the peasantry. I realize that this story is intended to fit into the tradition of the knightly tale, not that of a realistic novel, of course, but I wonder if Mr. Corbin should have been allowed to introduce the sufferings of the poor without having the protagonists also truly acknowledge this issue.  


Such questions aside, I enjoyed reading this novel, and I enjoyed thinking about the questions it raised in my mind. Many thanks to Suzannah for the opportunity to do so! I loved (and still love) her characters, and I look forward to seeing what she writes next. 





Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Book You May Want to Read


I've been reading reviews and other articles on Suzannah Rowntree's blog for a while now, and was interested to hear that she is going to release a novel of her own this March. The premise sounds intriguing, and I look forward to reading my own electronic copy.

Suzannah sent me some announcement material to share, and here it is!




Synopsis

Blanche Pendragon enjoys her undemanding life as the ward of an eccentric nobleman in 1900 England. It's been years since she even wondered what happened to her long lost parents, but then a gift on the night of her eighteenth birthday reveals a heritage more dangerous and awe-inspiring than she ever dreamed of--or wanted. Soon Blanche is flung into a world of wayfaring immortals, daring knights, and deadly combats, with a murderous witch-queen on her trail and the future of a kingdom at stake. As the legendary King Arthur Pendragon and his warriors face enemies without and treachery within, Blanche discovers a secret that could destroy the whole realm of Logres. Even if the kingdom could be saved, is she the one to do it? Or is someone else the Pendragon's Heir?


Author Bio

When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, trying to beat her previous number-of-books-read-in-a-year record. She blogs the results at www.vintagenovels.com and is the author of two non-fiction books, The Epic of Reformation: A Guide to the Faerie Queene and War Games: Classic Fiction for the Christian life. Pendragon’s Heir, her debut novel, springs from her lifelong love of medieval literature.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Advent Quick Takes


1. 
***

This Advent is going by swiftly, as all Advents seem to do ever since I reached adulthood. I remember how long the weeks before Christmas once seemed to be. We girls would make our Christmas lists, lie in front of the tree to gaze upon any packages, bake cookies, draw endless cards to go into people's stockings, and wait. It was a time of preparation for something that we knew was good. Perhaps that part of the message of Advent is easier for children to grasp than adults.

Because we won't be home for Christmas, it seems silly to bother with a tree, so we haven't. I am suffering from Christmas-tree-envy as I look in all the neighbors' windows and see their beautiful lights and ornaments.

However, we have been enjoying other Advent activities.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

In Which I Try to Pin Down Differences Between Great Authors and Not-Quite-Great Ones




I am simultaneously reading two books right now. One is Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin (this is a reread for me) and the other is Anon, Sir,Anon by Rachel Heffington. I’ve written about Lavinia before. Richly steeped in the world of ancient Italy, it is the story of a minor character from Virgil’s Aeneid. Not only is it a remarkable portrayal of a woman who is strong without falling into modern tropes or cultural expectations, but, in the true spirit of Virgil’s original epic, it is also an examination of the concepts of piety and virtue. I am discovering all kinds of themes and ideas that I had not noticed the first time.

Ms. Heffington’s book is a period murder mystery, set (as the book jacket tells us) “against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog.” Thus far it is enjoyable in its own way. The character who most interests me is the eccentric, Shakespeare-quoting, cantankerous old uncle who eschews relations and solves murders. The language is bright and sprightly, full of the obvious influence of various English authors from past eras (perhaps especially P.G. Wodehouse). It is in the handling of the characters that Ms. Heffington’s relative inexperience shows most. I find myself sometimes unsatisfied as a scene progresses. I wish to remain absorbed in the story, but little flaws--little clouds in the clarity of the author’s purpose when a character speaks or acts--arise to push me back to the status of objective observer and critic. It is not reasonable to expect every author to write with the skill of Mrs. Le Guin, but it is instructive to ask oneself what the difference is.

When I read Lavinia, every single word communicates to me. The feelings and personalities of the characters feel utterly real. If a situation is ambiguous, I know that it is on purpose. When I read “lesser” authors, I usually know what they are trying to tell me, but sometimes they fumble. Sometimes I am not sure whether or not a given impression was intentional. Sometimes their characters seem unintentionally inconsistent, or it seems as if the character may have said their line merely because the author thought the line was funny or clever, instead of because the line tells the reader something about the character. I'm sure my own stories have this problem, as well. 

I am trying to form hypotheses about what causes these differences. I think certain mistakes tend to rob a passage of narrative power:

1.      Too many minor emotions in one scene. The protagonist and other characters are afflicted with a whole chain of feelings (embarrassment, pique, amusement, fear, etc.) without proper build-up.
2.      Vagueness of purpose. If an author has made it clear that a particular character is, say, overly imaginative and inclined to be unduly fearful, I accept scenes in which the character behaves that way. If the author instead makes the character just a little too imaginative or fearful in a random moment or two, I tend to suspect that the author is unintentionally overdoing the scene. This makes me frustrated.


What else?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Gold Thread at Christmas


A short story by Anna Ilona Mussmann

This is something that I wrote two years ago and have recently edited. It's a bit of light fun, and no babies were harmed in the making of it. Merry Christmas to all my readers!


Shivering, the dwarf pressed both hands into his armpits. His summer jacket was as inconsequential here as if the void through which he had passed had spat him out naked. While he waited for the dizziness to pass, he scowled at the brick buildings that loomed upwards in their narrow lots—they filled him with a sense of puny unimportance. This world was tall and bland, full of unadorned cart horses and workmen in iced-over mustaches. He would be doing a favor to the child he had come to take.

Despite the cold, the dwarf unfastened the second to last button on his waistcoat before he selected assistance.

Two men trotted along the sidewalk, sprigs of holly pinned to their lapels. The open bottle that one of them clasped against his snowy shirt front seemed to be their defense against the cold. They, too, towered above him, glossy black hats increasing the contrast in height.

“I beg your pardon,” he declared, barring their path. “Can you gentleman direct me to the location of the royal birth?”

Two bewhiskered faces stared down at him. One guffawed, baring tobacco stained teeth. “What have we here? A circus midget? Better get back to your keepers, little fellow, or you’re liable to be mistaken for an organ-grinder’s monkey.”

“Look at him!” exclaimed the plump one. “Gold embroidery, red cap, the lot.”

Stepping backward, the small traveler cracked his hairy knuckles. “I beg your pardon,” he repeated grimly. “Do you intend to answer my question?”

“Loopy,” the tobacco-lover observed.

The plump one added more kindly, “This is a democracy, my small friend. We don’t hold much with royalty here.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

We Shop Because We Yearn (at The Federalist)


My opinion on why we buy pink (or blue) baby tubs and crazily-expensive wedding dresses. Plus a Dorothy Sayers quotation, which always makes an article better.

We Shop Because We Yearn 
Bridal gowns, baby gear, and other stuff we shop for are part of the human quest for identity and quietly acknowledge the realities political correctness seeks to deny. 
In “Murder Must Advertise,” a Dorothy Sayers mystery novel from 1933, the aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover in an advertising firm. The narrator tells us, “He had never realized the enormous commercial importance of the comparatively poor. Not on the wealthy, who buy only what they want when they want it, was the vast superstructure of industry founded and built up, but on those who, aching for a luxury beyond their reach and for a leisure for ever denied them, could be bullied or wheedled into spending their few hardly won shillings on whatever might give them, if only for a moment, a leisured and luxurious illusion.” 
The advertising of our decade is very similar: products are advertised not as shirts, cereal, or face lotion, but as “something to make you look thin,” “something to help your kids get good grades in school,” and “something to make you look like Jennifer Lawrence.” The items with which we fill our shopping carts are as much ideas, fantasies, and forlorn hopes as they are food and raiment. Advertising is manipulative, but in its own limited way, it also reveals the yearnings of the American heart.
Read the rest HERE.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Dated Mystery Story


Over Thanksgiving weekend, my family discovered a small library sale, and I picked up a few paperback mysteries, including a book of short stories by various authors. On the drive home, I read the first story aloud to my husband while he drove.

Here is the gist of the plot: A young woman returns to the town of her birth and discovers that her identity is not what she thought. Shall I spoil it for you? Turns out that this woman’s (so-called) mother, devastated by the loss of her own child in a housefire, kidnapped her former-employers’ toddler and raised that girl as her own. Thus, our impecunious heroine is really the long-lost heir of an eccentric, wealthy recluse.

The part of the story that feels most dated is the way in which the story resolves. The wealthy recluse lives a sterile, rich life without heart (you know how those rich people are--all furniture polish and no humanity) and has no interest in her child. The daughter she wanted is one raised by herself to be a poised socialite, and the young woman who has appeared is not that person. She offers to pay her to go away. Naturally, our impecunious heroine, who lives on a part time job at a gift shop, disavows all interest in such filthy lucre and returns to her friends in the cash-strapped town. Ultimately, she is given the gift of a rundown but once-beautiful house on a piece of land and accepts it because it came “with no strings attached.” Hurrah for noble principles.

The bare bones of the story could have been presented convincingly. As it is, they fall flat.

Reading it, I was surprised that such a weak tale made it into such a book. Yet I’ve noticed that a simplistic condemnation of the isolated, over-protected, “non-authentic” life of the rich (placed in opposition to a free-hearted, more ethical, more footloose life) does seem to pop up in stories from the 1990’s. During that decade it apparently felt fresh enough to be acceptable without any finesse or real development. Nowadays the writer would have had to do a bit more with such a theme.

Thinking about the story, it helps me understand a bit better why some books do, and others don’t, deserve to become classics. This story feels dated and incomplete today even though other tales from the same decade are still highly readable. Probably that is because they hinge upon the universal human condition instead of whatever social commentary was currently popular. That is something for me to remember with my own fiction writing. I need to restrain myself from trying to share too many opinions, and instead develop my observations. There is a difference.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Dealing with Anne Shirley, And Other Quick Takes




1.
***

First, a digression: Recently I blogged about Jules Verne, Ursula Le Guin, dragons, and giant octopi. I've significantly expanded that into an article about the subtle, hidden, cultural rules of storytelling. You can read it at The Federalist.


2. 
***



L.M. Montgomery's Anne Shirley is so very, very beloved by many readers that I hesitate to confess my ambiguous feelings about her. Each time I return to the novels (which I read several times throughout childhood, and very much enjoyed at the time), I find myself resenting her for being airbrushed and perfect. That might sound like a weird statement, since Anne is presented as a decidedly flawed individual who is always getting into "scrapes." However, every single one of her flaws are of the sort that readers are most willing to forgive. Inclined to daydream? Good, it makes the story better-- besides, our culture admires and encourages dreams, imagination, and originality. Generous to a fault? How sweet. Passionate tempered? Adds drama, and fits our desire for feisty heroines. Anne has flaws, but they are all romantic flaws. That is rather different from having the unattractive, wart-like flaws that tend to beset us real humans.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An Alien Sainthood


We remember Elizabeth of Hungary today. I must admit that I am not aware of the history of why Lutherans have selected this particular medieval woman for such official recognition. All I know is that she is admired for her self-sacrificing charity and generosity to others, and is one of the relatively few individuals commemorated in our Lutheran hymnal. You can find a brief text about her life here.

However, I was struck by one brief sentence (see the above link). After she was made a widow at the age of twenty, she "made provisions for her children and entered into an austere life as a nun in the Order of Saint Francis." Wow. Because she was married at the age of fourteen, the eldest of her three children could not have been any older than five or six. Yet she gave them into the care of someone else so that she could pursue austerity in a convent. Sorry, kids, Daddy is dead and Mommy is leaving. To top all that off, "Her self-denial led to failing health and an early death in 1231 at the age of 24."

To modern ears, Elizabeth's choices sound quite dreadful. They fly in the face of the priorities that we consider moral. As a mother myself, I find it hard to understand why she didn't wait until her little ones were grown.

The fact that Elizabeth's actions are considered proof of inspiring, saintly virtue shows that a cultural divide lies between her day and ours. The sanctity of the nuclear family was not a medieval value. Furthermore, the (Victorian?) idea that any decent woman would put her children first was not "obvious" to Elizabeth and her contemporaries. Nor did they recoil at a self-denial that we moderns would probably diagnose as dysfunctional or even a sign of mental illness (since it led to death).

There are, of course, many reasons for these differences, including the simple one that the nuclear family was not a sustainable unit in an era when death frequently winnowed out both parents and children. Besides, long-term life goals (such as a plan of entering a convent once one's youngest kid graduated from high school) would have been far more tenuous.

Despite all of my intellectual willingness to understand the values of Elizabeth's day, my emotions still balk at her choices (I can't help being from Twenty-First Century America). However, the beautiful thing is that Christians need not all belong to the same culture, live in the same way, or agree with each other's actions. It is good to be reminded sometimes that the many things I mentally categorize as being part of the "Christian life" are not perhaps ultimately important. What matters is not us and our culture and our Christian lifestyles, but Christ and the cross.


***

I am going to listen to this Issues, Etc. episode about her. Perhaps it will help me understand.


St. Elizabeth of Hungary bringing food for
the inmates of Wellcome.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Two-Year Blog Anniversary


Wow. I have been keeping this blog for two years! It doesn't feel that long.




When I first started posting, I lived in a little student apartment with my husband. I remember having him read my first post, and being extremely excited when it achieved multiple page views. Four or five! More than just the two of us! It was heady stuff.

In these two years, the post that has received the most page views is the one about how Fashion Was Easier When Women Wore Corsets.

Second most popular was the first in the "How to Homeschool Without Warping Your Kids" series.

In my personal opinion, the article that probably had the best illustrations is this one because it has little bunny memes that I made myself.


Writing for this blog is a lot of fun. I'm grateful that I've been able to do so. Thanks very much to all of you who read what I post!


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