The Count of Monte Cristo: 62%

Count of Monte Cristo
The unabridged, Robin Buss translation. Not sure this picture adequately conveys the massiveness of this volume. At 1,276 pages, this thing’s a door stop.

We’re almost halfway through 2019, and I have to confess, I’m pleased. Specifically, I’m pleased that I’ve “re-discovered” reading.

To be fair, I never really “lost” reading. But I definitely lost a regular reading habit. Many years ago, the advent of full-time employment delegated reading to those precious free hours tucked in and around the work week. Then when I decided to devote a fair portion of those free hours to writing fiction, reading for pleasure went out the window.

In my early days of writing, I was concerned about reading and unwittingly co-opting another author’s style or ideas. So overwhelming was the feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing, I was afraid of confusing a process that was in a very primordial form.

I still might not know what I’m doing, but I’ve gained enough confidence to be able to look outside the confines of my own pages. Some part of me has always known that continued, deep, engaging, reading is absolutely necessary to any growth I hope to achieve as a writer. And I couldn’t be happier about finally arriving at that point in my writing journey.

So, a couple of quick observations about The Count of Monte Cristo, thus far:

  • While I’m still reading via Serial Reader, I discovered that there has been a recent translation, by Robin Buss, done in 1996 (I think). So the friendly folks at the Garden District Book Shop ordered the volume, and I picked it up from them. It’s been very helpful to refer to this huge paperback, when the public domain translation of a choice phrase has me scratching my head. I’m still an avowed fan of Serial Reader, though — because there’s no way I’m lugging around this rock with me. My phone is much lighter.
  • The plot reminds me of the soap operas I used to watch during the summer, when I was a kid. But the historical details make it a bit more educational.
  • I really want to see Tom Hiddleston play Edmond Dantes. All the capes, and the conniving behavior. . .it feels like a natural progression from Loki to the Count of Monte Cristo.

The thing about reading: it’s addictive. Moby Dick was like a gateway drug. Not content to just read one thing at a time, I just recently finished Benjamin Taylor’s The Book of Getting Even, a novel I began in earnest over a year ago. Loved it. “Literary” fiction that isn’t afraid to deliver a good story, and make you feel every last pang experienced by its brilliant protagonist, Gabriel Geismar.

And I’m more than halfway through Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. The observations about writing that keep coming up in this story are just devastating. In a good way. Like this bit, referring to D.H. Lawrence’s quote:

“But what about ‘Trust the tale not the teller,’ and how the critic’s job is to save the work from the writer? By ‘critic,’ you know, Lawrence did not mean self-appointed. I would love to see the consumer review that saved a book from its author.”

Okay, I haven’t been this long-winded in a while. That’s it ’til next week!

 

The Count of Monte Cristo: 22%

Frioul archipelago
Frioul archipelago, Marseille, France. Near the Château d’If, where Edmond Dantes was imprisoned. Photo by Paul Hermann on Unsplash.

I began reading The Count of Monte Cristo via my Serial Reader app on April 1. It’s split into 208 issues, compared to Moby-Dick‘s 79, so I will be at this for the duration of spring and well into summer. But thus far, I find it a much easier read than Melville’s classic. The narrative is straightforward and the language is simpler.

This might be a good time to address my motivation for reading these two particular classics. Or for choosing these two as the “first in line” as I attempt to rekindle my reading habit. My motivation feels, to me, pretty layered, and I don’t want to bore you with all that unpacking. So I guess the simplest way to state it is: there are themes in both these stories that seem to tap into a very rich vein in our collective unconscious, to borrow from Jung. And I’m seeking a deeper understanding of those themes and how those storytellers managed to mine them so successfully.

Or maybe even simpler: I want to improve my ability to write interesting stories with some meaning, and I realize that while some of the best teachers are long gone, their lessons live on through their work.

Some particular observations about The Count of Monte Cristo, so far:

  • Napoleon: It’s been interesting to read a story written when Napoleon’s imprint on the world was still quite fresh. Napoleon’s former reign, and his attempt to reclaim the throne, are pivotal parts to the early part of the story. Since I live in the one U.S. state with a legal system still largely based on the Napoleonic Code, learning some of this history seems like a wise thing to pursue.
  • The south of France: Marseille, France has been the focal point of the story. Dumas’s depictions of the areas around the coasts of France and Italy are very evocative, and have sparked a new longing to see that part of the world, Marseille in particular. I’ve flown into Nice multiple times, and have spent considerable time in Cannes (in a former work life), but I have never made it to Marseille.
  • V for Vendetta: Going back to my motivations for reading The Count of Monte Cristo, V for Vendetta is one of them. It’s one of my favorite movies, and Monte Cristo is a recurring reference in it. It felt like high time to see what those references are all about.
  • Speaking of serials: Wikipedia tells me The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published in 18 parts, over a period of about 18 months.

I’m on track to beat that time by far. I’ve upgraded the Serial Reader app so that I can receive multiple issues in a day, if I choose. My goal is to finish Monte Cristo in under five months, instead of the nearly seven months it would take me at a “one-a-day” pace. At any rate, this is not the last you’ll be hearing from me, regarding Edmond Dantes!

While You See a Chance

April’s quote: “Whenever you find yourself doubting how far you can go, just remember how far you have come.”

There’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, now: Steve Winwood’s song “While You See a Chance,” from the album Arc of a Diver, released in February 1981.

Wikipedia tells me it made it all the way to Number 7 on the “Billboard Hot 100” by April of that same year. Thirty-eight years ago.

I remember that song pushing all the right buttons for me. I was a pre-teen, my tastes and predilections beginning to form, starting to diverge from those of my six older siblings. While those tastes never developed me into a die-hard Steve Winwood fan, that song has always ranked pretty high among my all-time faves.

A few months ago, I got a yen to hear it, and looked it up on YouTube. It’s a truly bizarre video, featuring proto-Blue-Man-Group performers and really bad visual effects, including light flashes that feel seizure-inducing. If you’re curious, click here.

Spotify’s audio-only version is preferable. Not only because I don’t have to shield my eyes, but also because it’s apparently been re-mixed. There’s a weird dub spot that I remember from the radio version, that’s still on YouTube. At around 2:19, Steve Winwood’s vocals go up and end abruptly, at the end of the lyric “And don’t you wonder how you keep on moving? / One more day your way.” How “your way” comes out never sounded right to me. It’s fixed on Spotify.

And speaking of the lyrics, they’re still one of my favorite things about the song. These are perhaps my favorite verses:

“When some cold tomorrow finds you
When some sad old dream reminds you
How the endless road unwinds you

While you see a chance take it
Find romance, fake it
Because it’s all on you”

Looking back to the Spring of 1981, I couldn’t have fathomed the many ways the endless road would unwind me. But deep down, I’ve always known that it’s all on me to find a way to re-wind.

And nowhere do the words “it’s all on you” feel truer than when you’re trying to write a story. Solo, without collaborators. I’m pretty sure that’s why I got the yen to hear this song in the first place. It does a great job of reminding me of my youthful enthusiasm, and helping me tap into an energy I had before I started down this endless road. 🙂

Nine Years In

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

March 27 has significance to me. And not because it’s a nephew’s birthday (sorry, Matt.) Specifically, the date of March 27, 2010, is a date I note for very personal reasons.

It’s the day I became a writer.

But that’s an oversimplification. Big time. The process of “becoming” anything is more evolutionary than instantaneous. It’s more accurate to state that March 27, 2010, is “the first day I committed words to paper, with the intent of weaving those words into a long-form story.” Or, it’s “the day I began to write fiction.” But I think saying it’s the day I became a writer sounds more compelling.

I’ll set the stage. I was six months into my forties. I had run my third marathon about two months prior. It was a Saturday night, and I was in New Holland, Pennsylvania on a business trip. (I’ll save the details on that trip for some other post, that I may or may not ever write).

There was definitely a “what’s next?” question looming in my mind. And there had been amorphous story ideas floating around in there, too. But those were all laid atop a lifelong desire to write that I had managed to tamp down, or ignore, up to that point. I would tell myself, “I’m too busy trying to make a living,” or, “it’s not a practical use of my time.”

I was in need of a catalyst. And that quick, quiet, trip to New Holland provided it.

That weekend, I saw a lot of horse-drawn buggies like the one pictured at the top of this post. Add a covering, and a prominent caution triangle fixed at the rear, and you’ll get the idea. Perhaps it was an appropriate symbol for the speed of my nascent writing career. It would be three years before I’d share anything I’d written, and another three before I was ready to share with the wider world.

So, on this nine-year anniversary, do I have any regrets? Absolutely. There are plenty of things I would do differently, now that I have the benefit of hindsight. But things don’t work that way. And I have ZERO regrets about embarking down this path.

There’s a piece of writing advice I keep bookmarked on my phone. I go to it whenever I need encouragement, which is often. So I’ll conclude by sharing this excerpt — it’s an apt description of my beginnings:

Write a lot. Maybe at the outset you’ll be like a toddler—the terrible twos are partly about being frustrated because you’re smarter than your motor skills or your mouth, you want to color the picture, ask for the toy, and you’re bumbling, incoherent and no one gets it, but it’s not only time that gets the kid onward to more sophistication and skill, it’s effort and practice. Write bad stuff because the road to good writing is made out of words and not all of them are well-arranged words. — From “How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit”

Moby-Dick: 99%

Okay, well, really 100%. Though my final issue of Moby-Dick from Serial Reader won’t arrive until later this morning; as luck would have it, I managed to read to the end using an analog copy.

And luck, or chance, did seem to have something to do with it. I’ve been tidying up (no, I have not watched Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix. My current tidying initiative is the consequence of a need, long-neglected, and a Lenten resolution). So, anyway, I was clearing a shelf on a bookcase, and happened across the copy of Moby Dick pictured above.

The copyright is 1948, and this edition is a fifth printing, dated June 1953. My father’s name is inscribed on the title page. Given the timing, I have to think he acquired the book toward the end of his college days. And I acquired it roughly three years ago, when we were doing the final clearing of my parents’ house before selling it.

Talk about a long-neglected need. When I subscribed to Moby-Dick on Serial Reader, I wasn’t aware that this copy was sitting on a shelf in my house. I don’t regret reading Moby-Dick on my phone — the print copy is yellowing and would have been much the worse for wear, had I toted it everywhere with me and read eight pages a day for the last eighty days.

I just wish I had been a bit more cognizant of my belongings.

There’s so much I could write about Moby Dick as literature: how Melville spends a lot of time on whales, how he introduces compelling characters in the final third of the book (something I thought I wasn’t supposed to do as a writer), how he telegraphs the ending. But it’s getting late, and I want to wrap this up.

One of the benefits of reading on my phone: I can take screen captures of passages that speak to me. There are about sixteen screen captures from Moby-Dick sitting in my favorites right now. Many of the passages are pretty dark, and I’d hate to conclude my post that way. So instead I’ll end with a quote that strikes a nice balance:

“Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: — through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolesence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If.”

 

(Whirly) Word Milestones

How long does it take to get to one million on Whirly Word?

Whirly Word has been my game of choice for the past several years. Back in the day before smart phones, I was very fond of a game called “Typer Shark.” But it would seem you really need a full-sized qwerty keyboard, if you want to achieve any real advancement in Typer Shark. If there’s a Typer Shark version for smart phones, I don’t want to know about it.

I like Whirly Word because it’s a word game, and it’s not a time-suck. I can play for a few minutes, and then set it down to resume the next time the spirit moves me. Last summer, I had a dalliance with a game that shall remain nameless (but it involves bubbles and pandas). Talk about a time-suck. I had to give it up, cold-turkey, because I could no longer deal with the anguish and regret I felt over the hours spent saving baby pandas trapped in bubbles.

Whirly Word fits in nicely with writing, and holding down a full-time job, and, essentially, engaging in a full life. I think it took me over three years to reach the score featured above.

Which brings me to a point about milestones. I belong to several Facebook groups for fiction writers, and I see many posts about word milestones. Folks who are able to knock out 40,000 words over a long weekend, or folks who can’t quit until they’ve written 10,000 words in their day.

I’m not one of those folks.

I’ve been at this long enough to know that I write slowly. And also, that once it gets past 8pm on a weekday, I’m pretty worthless. If my day has kept me occupied in other ways, and I’m only sitting down to write in the evening hours, then that day is likely a wash.

There’s a personal correlation between word counts and Whirly Word, I promise. And here it is: in the past month, I knew I was getting close to the one million score on Whirly Word. But more importantly, I was also really close to finishing up a draft of a novel. I told myself I had to finish the draft before scoring seven digits.

Between Friday, February 22 and Thursday, February 28, I calculate I wrote roughly 10,000 words. Pretty sure that’s a record for me. I turned over the draft to editors on Friday, March 1. My score on Whirly Word surpassed one million on Monday, March 4.

So here’s the thing about writing that much. It felt good, but it was also exhausting. I can’t sustain that pace week in, and week out. It was the running equivalent of “finishing strong” and sprinting to the finish line.

Taking the long view, and bringing it back to Whirly Word, I figure I’ve published two novels, and completed a third, in the time it took me to score one million points.

What will have transpired by the time I reach two million? 🙂

Field Trip

I missed some stunning visuals on my way to Thibodaux, (because I was driving and couldn’t take pictures). So here’s a recent pic of the Little Free Library, just outside the Couturie Forest in New Orleans City Park.

Last Friday, I had a very nice diversion from my normal routine — I went to Thibodaux, a town about sixty miles southwest of New Orleans, to speak to a group of high school students about fiction writing. Here are a few observations about the experience:

  • I was invited to speak to two junior classes at the Catholic high school in Thibodaux. Since my interest in writing began my junior year at a Catholic high school here in New Orleans, I started my self-introduction there. I tried to make the presentation as participatory as possible, and a few of the students shared excerpts from what they’d written as part of their semester assignment.
  • When I say “outside my routine,” I mean it. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a high school classroom, and I was pretty nervous. All in all, it was fun to share some of my adventures in writing, and to share what compels me to keep at it.
  • Invited to speak to English classes  — that must mean I’m a real writer, right?!?
  • Some pictures I wish I could have taken, of the sights between New Orleans and Thibodaux:
    • Crossing the Mississippi River through a thick fog, 155 feet above the surface of the water. Pretty scary, but it also felt like I was in a flying car.
    • The campus of Nicholls State University. The fog was so thick on my drive in, I didn’t see that I passed it as I made the turn to the high school. The sun was shining by the time I left, and I realized my oversight then.
    • Bayou Lafourche. The town of Thibodaux is situated along its banks.

That’s it for now!

Laborde Mountain

The Climb

On a quick jaunt into New Orleans City Park’s Couturie Forest, I thought of a term I remember hearing in my youth: riprap. Riprap is “loose stone used to form a foundation for a breakwater or other structure.” That’s what my dad called the broken concrete that lines the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. The levee that rings the south shore of this brackish lake was just a two-block walk from the house where I grew up, so I spent much of my childhood around riprap.

I think the word is still in use, I just don’t hear it much anymore. Perhaps because my day-to-day life does not involve constructing shoreline structures. (More’s the pity.) And the purpose of this post is not to share any deep observation about figurative, or metaphoric, riprap. I’m coming up empty, there. So instead, I thought I might share a few details about Laborde Mountain.

Laborde Mountain sits within City Park’s Couturie Forest, and the Internet tells me it was made from riprap derived from the construction of nearby Interstate 610. (Which, coincidentally, is the Interstate that is overpassing in the title of my novel, The Incident Under the Overpass.) The peak of Laborde Mountain is 43 feet above sea level, and is the highest point in the city of New Orleans.

Here are some pictures, where you can see the interesting composition of riprap around here. That’s it for today!

The Summit
The View from the Top
The visible riprap: oyster shells

Starbuck

The name Starbuck fascinates me. I’ve mentioned in this space before the first time I encountered Starbucks coffee, circa mid-1980s in New York City. (see Ode to the Starbucks on Upstream) For those who remember the 1980s, you’ll know it was a time when the coffee chain was not as ubiquitous as it is today.

I was excited by the name because of Lieutenant Starbuck, the character played by Dirk Benedict in the original Battlestar Galactica. At the time, I thought the name was a great fiction, like Luke Skywalker or Derek Wildstar. (Yes, I’m going full-geek with a Star Blazers reference. One day, I’ll expound upon how influential this animated series has been to me.)

It was probably young adulthood before I realized that Starbuck is a bona fide surname. And then not long after, that a famous fictional character held the name a century before Dirk Benedict suited up in his 70s-era space opera attire. I’m referring, of course, to Starbuck from Moby-Dick. Since I’m now 37% into that tome, I’ll share with you what I’ve discovered about the surname Starbuck.

The Internet tells me there was a renowned whaling family in Nantucket named Starbuck, who likely inspired Melville in naming the first mate of the Pequod. And that the name hails from the village of Starbeck in Yorkshire. Which dates at least as far back as the 1086 Domesday Book, where it appears as Starbok, a name likely derived from the Norse-Viking “Stor-Bokki.” There’s some Internet consensus that “Stor” means great, or large in size. “Bokki” is a little less clear — it either means “man” or “river.”

Whatever it’s supposed to mean, I think it’s pretty cool that Starbuck (or some variation thereof) appears in the Domesday Book. And it kind of blows my mind that almost exactly 900 years later, I see my first Starbucks coffee shop.

Bringing it one step further, I doubt I ever would have made the connection, had it not been an affinity for the name.

Lucky 13

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash

Portentous. That’s the word that comes to mind when thinking of this past Sunday, January 20. The Saints played the NFC Championship game in the Superdome, there was a lunar eclipse, or “blood moon,” later that evening, AND Husband Tim and I celebrated our thirteenth wedding anniversary.

First thing that comes to mind, honestly, is that I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for more than three years. I wrote about our tenth anniversary in this post: Notching a Decade. And, the second thing, is that thirteen has never been a big deal to me. Not to make light of it — I get that triskaidekaphobia is a very real thing. Every time I get on an airplane with no row 13, or in an elevator in a building with no apparent 13th floor, I understand that the number inspires a real enough fear in enough people that such decisions get made.

It’s just never been a big deal to me. My feelings are akin to Jim Lovell’s, in one of my favorite movies, Apollo 13. His wife, Marilyn, expresses concern over the number of his mission: “Naturally, it’s 13. Why 13?” she asks. Jim Lovell’s reply: “It comes after 12, hon.”

The same thing goes for eclipses. I’m fascinated by the synchronized timing and alignment of these giant celestial bodies, and the tricks they play on us earth dwellers (click here for my observations of fireflies during a solar eclipse). But I don’t think they herald any particular play of luck: good, bad, or otherwise.

So, I did not feel any particular foreboding ahead of that NFC Championship game. Tim and I were there together, as part of our anniversary celebration. Our spirits, and optimism, were high. Yet, the Saints lost, in a particularly painful fashion. (A missed call by game officials in the last minutes of regulation play turned the tide against us.) For those not in New Orleans, let’s just say, to qualify the loss as heartbreaking is a grand understatement.

In retrospect, do I think the number of years we’ve been married, or the red moon, had any impact on the unfortunate turn of events for the Saints? No. I didn’t pre-game, and I still don’t. But as a fiction writer, these are the types of noteworthy details that add compelling dimension to any conflict.

And for the record, if I was writing this story, the Saints would have won. 😦