Elise Blackwell’s Novel About Musicians Is Dazzling

I was an early reader, and back in elementary school, if I liked a book, I read it many times. So often, in fact, that my parents would ask why I wasn’t reading something else. It struck me as a strange question and my answer was always “But I love this book!”

I still have my childhood copy of The Three Musketeers and the binding is loose, pages have disappeared and it looks like it might have gotten mixed up in one of their sword fights. My copy of Cheaper by the Dozen, a story of a colorful family of twelve kids, is almost as battered.  Just looking at them brings back happy memories of sinking into magical narratives.  Both books inspired me to become a writer myself.

Later on, I would find myself drawn back to favorite novels from college courses like Women in Love and The Portrait of a Lady.

But as my range of interests expanded, there were so many books I wanted to explore than I’d re-read something only occasionally. And when I became a book reviewer for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, and other papers, keeping up with my assignments meant that there wasn’t time to re-read books.

Now that I review less often, I’m able to visit with books I especially enjoyed and my latest rediscovery is Elise Blackwell’s An Unfinished Score.  This is actually my third encounter because I read it a second time when I assigned it in a creative writing workshop.  Students loved it, and it’s not hard to see why.

In glistening, powerful, evocative, poetic prose Blackwell takes us into a world many of us will be familiar with–a troubled marriage–and one more remote: the life of a woman violist who’s a member of a string quartet, is married to an aloof, unhappy composer, and has been having an affair with a famous conductor.

Despite her secret life, this world is full of camaraderie and joy.  However, making music itself can be sad because “something real and loud in the air…disappears from all but memory.  Sometimes Suzanne strains to imagine the music still living, playing on in some version of reality not organized by time, all its notes together like colors in black paint or white light.  It might be a place, she thinks now, in which you can love two people without diminishing either.”

The book opens with a shock: Alex, the conductor, dies in a plane crash and as soon as she hears the news, Suzanne’s life becomes painfully bifurcated.  There’s everything normal she does each day, and there’s the howling void inside of her. Not long afterward, a phone call from out of the blue changes her life, and the book becomes even more dramatic as Suzanne is drawn into a bizarre new relationship.

Blackwell deeply understands the routines of the musician’s life, and the mysteries.  As a writer, she excels at sense detail, at creating idiosyncratic characters, and imbuing every page with a love of music.  And there are plot twists worthy of a mystery.

Reading An Unfinished Score made me sorry I’d given up piano lessons years ago, but even if you’ve never played a single note, you’re likely to find Blackwell’s novel thrilling, passionate, and hypnotic.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of twenty-six books in genres from memoir to mystery.

Did Winston Churchill Really Say That?

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

–A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

–A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

–An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one above. She also credited Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

When I looked for the source, the brilliant line didn’t show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a cinematic connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

The line’s political lineage extends further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit.

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. He put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers. You can find them on Amazon.  Lev teaches online writing creative workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Stephen King is Wrong: Books Do More Than Just Tell a Story

Stephen King once said on CNN Money that books themselves aren’t important since they’re basically just a delivery system for a story. But they’re much more than that: they’re canvases. I know. I’ve been painting on mine for years.

It started in college when I first bought books that weren’t required reading. I’d already been highlighting textbook passages with yellow marker, and scrawling my name inside, so of course I wrote my name on the first page of these books, too. But I also put down the date of the purchase, the book store, a recent event, and who I was with at the time.

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These scrawls sometimes proved amusingly opaque years later. Like: Great news on Wednesday. What about? Or: Argued with N. Who was N? And why were we arguing? Was it before I bought the book, after, and was the book connected in some way? I’ve tried going back and comparing my journal at the time, but the cryptic notes don’t open up their secret to me. More often, though, the inscription refers to a lunch with a lover or friend, and the scene opens up for me in a whole new way.

Having known for a long time that I wanted to be a writer, once I started buying books as a matter of course, anything I read was also a subject of study. I underlined passages, circled words I didn’t know or wanted to use, bracketed or starred phrases worth remembering and quoting. Sometimes arrows would point to another page so I made sure I remembered a connection for later.

Great lines got the full treatment, and I’d note their pages in the front or back of the book, along with an identifying word or two, sometimes the whole phrase if it was memorable.

The more dedicated I became to writing as a career, the more the books I owned became a repository of ideas, notes, questions, descriptions of dreams inspired by the book, even short journal entries. It usually felt more immediate to keep the source of my inspiration and the idea closely connected. Some books have story titles, metaphors, character descriptions, opening lines written in the back or front — and even in-between. More than a few have whole scenes worked out.

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My books are also unexpected time capsules. I’m always running out of bookmarks, so many older books have had receipts, notes, to-do list and even letters tucked into them.

Once I started reviewing for The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and magazines in the early 1990s, the intensity of my entrance into each book deepened. Though I wrote drafts on my PC, I usually started the review somewhere inside the book unless I wanted to pass it on to a friend or relative later. Then I’d have to restrain myself, keep pencils and pens away from the book at hand. It wasn’t easy.

Biographies are a passion of mine, and whether I’m reviewing the book or not, they still seem to call out running commentary as I compare my life to the one I’m reading about. But I don’t tend to write much snark no matter what the genre, because if a book pisses me off that much, I’m not likely to finish it. I do correct typos now and then. I can’t resist.

Occasionally a book feels so much like a freight train car covered with graffiti that if I want to reread it, I just buy a new copy of the book. There it is, virginal, unmarked, waiting for me to dive right/write in. But I also keep the previous copy or copies because they form a small diary of my relationship to that text.

I do have dozens of books on my iPad, but while I enjoy the convenience and speed of downloading, I miss the physical interaction. Every book tells its own story, but the books in my library tell my stories as well.

Lev Raphael is the author 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

7 Friends Every Writer Needs

Writing is a lonely profession and the people who best understand that loneliness, whether they’re introverted or extroverted, can make for terrific friends on your journey.  They deal with the same or similar issues as you do and you speak the same language.  Experiences that might seem outlandish to “outsiders” are part of an insider’s writing life. But what kinds of writers make for good professional friends no matter what stage your career is in?

–Look for writers who don’t focus on the ups and downs of the publishing world the way some people obsess about the stock market.  Writers who care more about their craft no matter what’s trendy can make solid friends.

–Writers who enjoy their success without bragging about it are good people to be around.  They value what they achieve and can model it for you. There’s nothing wrong with healthy enjoyment of doing well.

–Every career has its setbacks and disappointments.  Writers who can empathize with yours, perhaps share their own trials, and maybe even help you strategize what to do next are invaluable.  We can all use support when we’re down.

–We live in a numbers-crazy society and when a writer friend is more excited about what she’s writing than how many words or pages she’s churned out, the focus is where it can be most helpful and even inspiring.

–Mixing with writers who work in different genres can be invigorating and refreshing, even if you’re not reading each other’s work.  There are many things you share, but the differences in how and what you produce can be instructive when you talk shop.

–Experienced writers who manage to balance the business side of writing along with the craft itself can be great guides.  Likewise writers who know when to say no to a gig and why.  Saying no is a challenge even for best-selling authors.

Being connected to other writers is important because it helps you feel part of a community, gives you support and guidance, and even acts as a source of fun.  Writing is a crazy business—who better to enjoy it with than folks who understand that reality and enjoy it?

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of 25 books in a dozen different genres.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.

 

Success For Writers Is Soooooo Unpredictable

Poor newbie writers. Everywhere they turn, someone’s telling them how to be successful. Go indie! Publish traditionally! The advocates of each path offer mind-numbing statistics to prove their points. It’s as frantic as those middle-of-the-night infomercials for exercise machines that will trim belly fat in only ten minute sessions, three times a week.

Of course, these machines are modeled for you by men and women with killer abs and minimal body fat. You and I will never look like that unless we give everything up and hire live-in trainers. And even then, as the coach said in Chariots of Fire, “You can’t put in what God left out.”

I’ve lost my patience with super-successful indie or traditionally-published authors telling the world to publish and promote your books the way they did because look how great things turned out for them. Each side reports the benefits of what they’ve done with certainty and conviction, and of course they’re either best-selling authors on the newspaper lists or best-selling authors on Amazon. Or both.

First-time authors sometimes publish big with a New York press, and sometimes they make it big going indie (and possibly go bigger switching to legacy publishing). It’s all a crap shoot.

Most authors will never reach the heights of these newly-minted experts, and not through any fault of their own. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how good your book is, luck and timing are key ingredients that can’t be corralled. Books have their own karma. The right book at the right time published in the right way booms. We have no control over how our books succeed or fail, but we can control how good they are before they reach readers.

But nobody can predict it’s going to happen. And the authors who share their glorious experiences need to realize that though they may want to inspire and enlighten wannabes, at some level, they just make the rest of us drool or wish we’d listened to our parents and gone into something less unpredictable like Accounting.

The author of 25 books in many genres, Lev Raphael has taken his twenty years of university teaching online to offer unique, one-month creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

“Transcription” Is The Dullest WW II Novel I’ve Read In Years

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When I started reviewing crime fiction and other genres for the Detroit Free Press back in the 90s, I made an odd discovery.  Reviewers, friends, acquaintances would be raving about a book or an author.  I’d get a review copy and think, “Huh?  What am I missing?”  I remember one book that was hailed across the country in almost ridiculous terms, with one major reviewer gushing that it wasn’t just a book, it was an experience.

Well, isn’t reading every book an experience of some kind?

The second part of this discovery was that when I’d be out on tour for one of my own books, when it came time for Q&A, eventually someone would ask about one of these books the whole world seemed to worship and adore.  The questions always came a bit tentatively, as if it was heretical to even raise them.  I would be honest but focus on something technical.  For instance, with one wild best seller, I said I just didn’t believe the voice was the voice of a teenager.

I’ve been observing the love fest for Kate Atkinson for awhile. Friends have urged me to read Life After Life or Case Histories, and I just couldn’t get into them.  Then a best friend sent me three of her books as holiday gifts.  I picked Transcription because it was the shortest, and I was determined to finish it so we could discuss it.  This is the story of a young woman, Juliet Armstrong, drawn into the fringes of England intelligence in 1940. Her job is typing up transcriptions of bugged conversations of British Nazi sympathizers.  If it sounds dull, it is.

Nothing dramatic happens until halfway, and even then, the drama is relative. Eventually something more exciting does take place, but as WW II books go, this is a sleeper.  I have nothing against war novels that are literary fiction: One of my favorites is Helen Humphreys’ Coventry, which is poetic and intensely dramatic.  But Transcription was annoying in a number of ways.  Apparently shifting decades is one of Atkinson’s “things.”  I found it frustrating.  A straightforward narrative would have ramped up the tension.

But the narrative itself was more awkward and off-putting than the structure.  Juliet is given to incessant thinking about her thinking and to making silly puns.  When told to keep an ear out, she notes that she has two.  Hah.  Hah.  The trivial focus on her mental commentary is relentless and her observations are sometimes ridiculously banal: “But then, what constituted real?  Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?”

There’s a plot twist at the end that doesn’t quite relieve the boredom of the previous 250+ pages. There’s also so much tea drinking that after awhile you begin to wonder if the book is meant to be some kind of spoof of British fiction.

After finishing, I found that a host of highly disappointed readers on Amazon found similar problems with the book.  Me, I read it out of loyalty to my friend, and finally out of morbid curiosity: could it really go on like this page after page?  It did.

With twenty years of university teaching behind him, Lev Raphael offers a range of creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com “Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael is like seeing ‘Blade Runner’ for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, Michigan

Goodreads Finally Dropped Its Bogus George Eliot Quote

Back in 2017, I contacted Goodreads several times to let them know that this top-ranked quotation by George Eliot is bogus, sending them proof:

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

Yes, you’ve seen it attributed to Eliot everywhere: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, t-shirts, kitchen magnets, mugs, bookmarks, tote bags, tattoos. But there’s no source.

I read George Eliot in college religiously, and read about her as well because she was a major inspiration to me as a budding writer. So the first time I saw the quote it felt off to me — a bit too peppy, more like something from a Hallmark greeting card.

I poked around the Internet, and though it’s inescapable, there’s no attribution. Nobody records it as a comment she made, it’s not something she wrote in her diary, and it doesn’t appear anywhere in her writing. That’s been proven by Eliot scholars, as reported in The New Yorker. It’s also been researched by a great web site, Quote Investigator, which shows a long history of mis-attribution and misquotation.

Eventually, someone at Goodreads asked me to post on the “Librarians page” and said the team would investigate. I did, but what was there to investigate? That had already been done by scholars who I imagine have more expertise than the intrepid Sherlocks at Goodreads.

Well, the bogus quote is finally gone, but it took long enough, and should never have been there in the first place. You have to wonder what other fake quotes are on Goodreads that also need to be axed.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books of fiction and non-fiction. He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com

What’s Better Than Re-reading a Book You Love?

My answer: Teaching it!

I had been a fan of historical fiction for a long time and when I discovered Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, I was in heaven.  The return of The Last Kingdom to Netflix reminds me how wonderful it was to assign that book for a class reading popular fiction in a wide variety of genres.

The hero is Uhtred, a dispossessed young noble from northern England in the 9th century, during the reign of King Alfred. Uhtred is descended from kings but his rightful claim to an impregnable fortress where he grew up has been usurped by his uncle, and Uhtred is burning with the desire for revenge.  It’s what obsesses him through the entire series.

Alfred was known for his piety, his strategy, his culture, and his determination to drive the Danes from his realm of Wessex in southern England and the other kingdoms England was then divided into. Glamorous, hot-tempered, man-of-action Uhtred has a complex relationship with this intellectual, pious king whom he ends up being bound to in life-changing ways.  Breaking an oath of allegiance in this period was more than dishonorable–it could brand you for life as untrustworthy and shameful.

“The world began in chaos and it will end in chaos.  The gods brought the world into existence, and they will end it when they fight among themselves, but in between the chaos of the world’s birth and the chaos of the world’s death is order, and order is made by oaths, and oaths bind us like the buckles of a harness.”

Uhtred has grown up with a split identity: raised English, he was captured by Danes as a child and identifies as a Dane, which makes for tremendous conflict, both internal and external. He’s a part of both cultures, both peoples, and lives out his cultural conflict almost daily with most of the people he meets.

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Teaching the first book in the series, I had students talking about expectations and conventions in historical fiction, which many of them hadn’t read before.  We moved on to discussions of Cornwell’s use of sense detail, his honest depiction of violence, the role of women in both Saxon and Danish societies as he portrayed it, the impact of the story being told by a first person narrator.   Many of them were put off at first by the alien cultures but soon found themselves compelled by the story telling.  I fell in love with the book all over again during the two weeks we spent discussing it with my students.  It felt new, fresh, and exciting.

TV reviewers are telling readers that this show is a good stand-in for The Game of Thrones.  Maybe.  The books couldn’t be more different.  Martin is a genius at world building on an epic scale, but Cornwell’s books are tighter, move faster, and with rare exceptions stick with the same point of view so that you’re immersed in just one character.

The Last Kingdom is a brilliant mix of deep psychology and high adventure.  It’s hooked me all over again and I’ve started re-reading book two in the series….

Question: what book have you been re-reading lately?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres and teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com

 

 

 

Have You Been Dissed By A Writing Professor?

It happened to Harlan Ellison who was one of our most prolific and influential science fiction writers. He published 1700 short stories and over 50 books, writing scripts for Outer Limits and Star Trek among other shows. His work influenced James Cameron when he filmed Terminator, and that’s just a start when it comes to his cultural impact.

But when Ellison attended Ohio State University, a professor passed judgment and said he had no talent for writing. Irascible even as an undergraduate, Ellison punched his professor and was expelled.

I’m not defending Ellison’s response, but if you think a professor wouldn’t feel the need to be so harsh and unequivocal you’d be wrong.

I’ve known creative writing professors who treat students like dirt. One was notorious for humiliating students by telling them their work was “shit.” He could make students cry or tremble with fear. Another would only let favorite students read aloud, clearly sending the same ugly message to everyone else in her class. These professors are not anomalies: I know from sources across the country that dissing student writing is a commonplace in creative writing workshops at the undergraduate and graduate level. A good friend was told she would never publish because she apparently hadn’t “suffered enough.” Soon afterwards, she had a story accepted at a fine literary magazine.

I loved the community of writers in my MFA program, but got poleaxed by a professor. A story that I thought was a breakthrough was demolished by my workshop, and then the professor delivered the coup de grâce. He said it was nothing new and the kind of thing I could write in my sleep.  It was devastating.

A few weeks later it won first prize in the program’s writing contest which was judged by a famous editor. When I shared the brickbats from my workshop, she growled, “Don’t change a goddamned word!” I then sold it for a lot of money to Redbook, which at the time had 4.5 million readers, and the story launched my career as an author. My professor’s comment at the next workshop? “It’s still shit, but now it’s shit with a prize.”

Taking writing workshops to develop and hone your craft is a good idea, but not everyone commenting on your work comes from a pace of creative nurturing and encouragement–or even neutrality. Too many of them want to tear you down for whatever twisted reasons of their own. You don’t have to punch out your professor or anyone who disparages your work, but it’s wise to listen to all criticism with your shields up, as if you were in Star Trek. Remember what Kirk says to Sulu: “Steady as she goes.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres, including the guide for writers, Writer’s Block is Bunk. You can take writing workshops with him online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”—Kyle Roberts, MSU