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randwolf

Short reviews

"I love sentences like I love good food."—Holly Phillips

Holly Phillips, The Burning Girl, Prime Books, 2006.
A novel told in elegant prose and strong images. At the beginning of the book the protagonist is released from a hospital, missing the memories of the last six years of her life, with a disease of bleeding and fevers, and synesthetic visions. She starts meeting people from her lost years and has hard adventures. Which could be the beginning of a synopsis of a standard urban fantasy. But heart and style lift the book above those. The book allows tragedy; the characters make horrible, heartbreaking mistakes. And the literary synesthesia becomes physical reality as the book progresses, something that only can happen in fantasy and science fiction, while remaining beautiful and fascinating. The Burning Girl is lovely and heartbreaking to read. It's also Phillips's first novel; I think she's a shot at becoming one of the obscure greats of the field. Worth the trouble of seeking out, and it will take some seeking out; Prime Books is a small press, a Wildside imprint, and you'll probably have to order it if you want to read it.

Samuel R. Delany, About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews, Wesleyan University Press, 2005.
Probably the best book on the process of writing I've read (not that I've read very many of these) and one of the best on the creative process (and I've read a few more of those); Delany, known as a brilliantly innovative author of science fiction in his youth, has become a brilliant teacher and author of non-fiction as an elder. (Or, as he puts it, "the novels I was publishing weren't considered important enough to bother [editing]. Today I've become (in the tiny pool in which I splash about) such a fat warty toad that no-one cares to or dares to edit me.") His advice to beginning writers and wannabes—he is a workshop instructor as well as an academic—is interesting and, I think, valuable; he can explain why his examples of bad writing are bad, he can explain what makes them better, and the explanations make sense. I am less convinced by his theoretical explorations of auctorial fame and influence, his discussions of race, sexuality, and gender in writing, and his discussions of "experimental" fiction, but they're fascinating anyway. His citations alone are worth the book—Delany has read a lot, and a lot of unusual books. The appendix, on style, grammar, writing practice, and craft practice, I think, can be set alongside books like The Elements of Style and The Reader Over Your Shoulder as a practical reference for writers.

On a purely personal note, I find the discussion of writing process fascinating, as set against my own education in architectural design. So many similarities and yet, the differences. On a lexical note, it is interesting that what Delany calls "structure", architects call "order"—"structure" in architecture referring to the physical systems that make a building stand up, a thing that is an issue only to writers who also engage the book as physical objects—as designers, in other words. Yet some of the creative issues are very similar—Delany explaining that a synopsis is not a book, and that one cannot go from a synopsis to a book—a problem of process—exactly paralleling the problem of way too much modernist architecture, where the attempt was to go from spatial and social abstractions to buildings. Does some version of Delany's prescription—engagement with the imagined experience of characters—apply to architecture? Perhaps it does.

In any event a fascinating book, and one of great value, I think, to writers, and perhaps even artists in other fields.

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