Reading and the Full Corn Moon

There’s an enormous yellow moon hanging outside my place tonight. The crickets are shrilling in the bushes, and the lone streetlamp in my dark little street is flickering insanely, about to give up the ghost. An inside source tells me the Farmers’ Almanac says our full moon this week is called the Full Corn Moon. (Did you know the full moons all have names?)

So anyway, in the wake of August, when I was working like mad on editing The Sacred Woods, I’m now allowing myself to “be on vacation” for a few days. There are other writing tasks immediately ahead, but I’ve been waiting all summer for the chance to immerse myself in other people’s words for awhile. It’s an indescribably good feeling to get out of the driver’s seat, down off the conductor’s podium, out of the control booth, off the ladder, out from behind the Dungeon Master’s screen — choose whichever analogy you like — and just read for a few days. I really should allow myself to do this more often, because I feel like a dry sponge that’s been squeezed hard, thrust into a bucket of water, and then unsqueezed. Or like, you know how when the ground gets bone dry sometimes in midsummer, and when you pour some water on it, the water just vanishes instantly? That’s what I feel like. It’s so nice to be reading. (Go ahead and laugh! I know pretty much anyone who’s reading this makes time for reading as a matter of course, like eating and brushing teeth. I never claimed to be normal! [And for the record, I do read all the time -- just not nearly enough fiction.])

My mom used to have her office in the very center of our house, in what was once the dining room, until the house expanded, and the dining room migrated one room to the south. Mom had two desks and a file cabinet all pushed up together and covered with mountains of books, magazines, papers, and office supplies. The drawers were brimming over, and there was more of the same stuff in cardboard boxes on the floor under the desks. Mom did almost all her actual writing at the kitchen table, but her desk was where her typewriter — and in later years, her word processor — was, so that’s where she’d go to type final drafts, find envelopes, and look up addresses.

But the point I’m getting to is: one of my favorite things about Mom’s office was a very large, framed poster she had on the wall over and beside her desk, dominating the room. I suppose she got it through her work as a librarian and creative program director for the schools — perhaps at some conference. It was a picture of a princess, framed in the window of a high tower. A handsome knight/prince was standing on a ladder leaned up against the tower’s side, and you could tell from the surrounding scene that he’d journeyed through a dark forest and gotten past a dragon to rescue the princess. But she was turned away from him with her nose in a book, and there were books stacked all around her. The poster’s caption proclaimed: “‘I’d rather read,’ she said.”

Isn’t that excellent? I kept that poster, of course, though it’s brittle with the passage of years and locked away in my storeroom in that house. I hope someday to have it out again and on the wall.

So anyway, a few days ago, a good friend asked me if I’d ever read any of the host of stories by other writers that are based on the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft — for example, my friend said, Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald.” I hadn’t read that one; and hearing that it was in one of his collections, I thought, “I wonder if. . . .” So I went over to my bookcase, pulled down Gaiman’s Fragile Things, and lo and behold, “A Study in Emerald” is the first story in it!

To this point, I’d kind of wondered what all the fuss over Neil Gaiman was about. I liked Coraline okay — he was obviously a good writer, but I thought the book was a little uneven, that he’d gotten a bit careless toward the middle. (Several people have told me that the movie is better than the book — I haven’t seen it yet.) I don’t mean to run Coraline down. It is quite clever and nicely done overall, and I always mention it when I’m asked to compare Dragonfly to something. (I actually have very fond memories of reading Coraline. Some friends of mine in Japan had to be out of town for several days because of a death in the family. I was on a summer vacation at the time, and I house-sat for about a week — feeding their cats, watering their plants . . . and reading Coraline. It was an interesting time.)

But I did wonder why we hear Gaiman’s name everywhere, why he can do pretty much anything he wants to do, and why he keeps winning all those awards. Well, now I know! After that story, I decided I had to read the whole collection. I can’t speak for his novels: I haven’t read the ones he’s most famous for. He probably is a genius at longer forms, too, or he wouldn’t be the king of the genre today. But as a short story writer in the field of dark fantasy, I think he may very well be the greatest living practitioner. For the past decade, his stories have consistently won Locus, Stoker, and World Fantasy Awards. The tales he crafts are simply elegant in their craftsmanship and brilliant in their content. They’re unfailingly clear and approachable. You don’t have to “wade through” anything. He has the ideas, the language skills to make things happen, and the reading experience that allows him to pay homage to almost anybody while still producing strikingly original stories.

This is a little early for the season, but anyone would do well to get Fragile Things ready for reading in October. I’m sure I’ll talk about this again as the long-shadow season draws nearer, but my all-time favorite Hallowe’en short story is Richard Laymon’s “Boo!” I think I now have a second-favorite. (Laymon’s is still the best — I don’t know how a story could be any more perfect than that one.) In the second position is Neil Gaiman’s “October in the Chair” (which, incidentally, he dedicates to Ray Bradbury).

And I’m not saying that’s the best story in the collection. Every one of the stories I’ve read so far has been astonishing, and they’re not all the same. This is a collection of tales that have been award-winners in the years they were published, so you’re reading the best of the best. I emphatically recommend it.

But I’ve made one more reading discovery which, for me personally, is even greater. I’ve also found another book which goes onto my small, small shelf of the absolute best. I haven’t loved a book this much since Millhauser’s Enchanted Night. And the book is:

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson. I’ll quote the back flyleaf: “The writer and artist Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known as the creator of the Moomin stories, which have been published in thirty-five languages. The Summer Book was one of ten novels that she wrote for adults. It is regarded as a modern classic throughout Scandinavia.”

It’s been translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, with a foreword by Esther Freud. Another good friend gave me this book as a Christmas present several years ago, and I’d been saving it. (Aren’t books just the most wonderful presents you can give or get? We used to put up a sign in our bookstore window every December: “It isn’t Christmas without a book.” Okay, don’t think too hard about the theology of that ad. But you know I’m right.)

Now let me quote from the front flyleaf: “An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims, and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges — one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs, and unpredictable seas.

“Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults.”

It was first copyrighted in 1972 and orginally published in Swedish as Sommerboken.

(Interesting aside: the best movie I saw this summer was also a Swedish film. That’s a whole other topic. If anyone wants to know the title, let’s take it up in the comments section. This has really been the Summer of Sweden!)

Anyway, The Summer Book, on just about every page, has me laughing out loud, crying (yes, literally), and shaking my head in wonder and awe. It’s about all the things I love most: the magic of childhood and the imagination, the beauty of nature, and the love between people. I deliberately held off starting this book until after I was done with The Sacred Woods, because it’s also about those very same things and features a grandparent and grandchild. If I’d tried to read this as I was writing, I think it would have influenced me in the wrong ways. (They’re very different stories.) I won’t start telling you about my favorite scenes — because the whole book is my favorite scene. This is one I’ll want to revisit again and again and again.

So. . . . Yes, I’m reading Gaiman and Jansson simultaneously. Believe it or not, this works wonderfully for me. The two books are completely different from each other, and I love the variety. I’ll read a Gaiman story, then go back to Jansson to see what Grandmother and Sophia will do next. Back and forth, back and forth: it’s a vacation, it’s an education, it’s an unforgettable summer experience.

Yes, SUMMER, I say! Fall does not begin until the 23rd of this month, so we have a full three weeks of summer left. For me in my Japanese university schedule, it’s right now midsummer: my holiday is August and September. So let’s not go thinking of fall yet: we’ll do that with a passion in October.

Finally, here’s an insight into line-editing which seems edifying and amusing. This is from The Sacred Woods. Here’s the unedited passage:

“[Character A]‘s gaze was dark with worry. He seemed to sniff the air as he trotted toward me. With a tense expression, he waited for me to speak.”

Edited version:

“His gaze dark with worry, [Character A] trotted toward me.”

I eliminated a “was.” Forms of “to be” should always be highly suspect — not that we can’t use them, but they tend to get overused. In the context of this scene, sniffing the air didn’t contribute anything, and seeming to sniff the air is just dumb: you can tell if a person is sniffing the air or not. Since his gaze is already “dark with worry,” we don’t need that “tense expression.” And waiting for [me] to speak is unnecessary, because it becomes obvious when [Character B] is the first person to speak. We’re left with one lean, vivid sentence featuring an action verb.

That’s how I spent my August. And now I’m reading. Happy Full Corn Moon! (As for comments, this might be a good time to let us know what you’re reading in this last golden month of summer. I know Marquee Movies is off to rescue Bilbo and see him safely home. . . .)

23 Responses to Reading and the Full Corn Moon

  1. My current reading list:

    “Until I find You”, John Irving

    “The Descent”, Jeff Long (I’m re-reading this one)- you might like it, it’s about caves and sub-surface dwellers.

    “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance- Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem”, Jane Austen & Seth Grahame-Smith

    And Ray Bradbury’s “Stories”

    I haven’t been able to decide what I want to read, so I’m reading everything at once.

    • fsdthreshold fsdthreshold says:

      Thanks, Lizzie! That sounds like a good approach. There really is something to be said for reading more than one book at once. Especially if you’re the kind of reader like me who doesn’t want to plunge on and on through a book at full speed.

      I walk through caves and forests the same way (or any interesting place): I like to stop, turn around, and study the view behind me as well as the view in front and to the sides. I was bewildered when I visited Akiyoshidai, Japan’s largest commercial cave: the stream of tourists seemed bent on getting through the cave, racing down the path without a glance in any direction.

      I am making a note of The Descent. Thanks!

    • Chris says:

      I so desperately wanted to enjoy “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and now I’ve tried no less than 2 times to get into it, but even wonderful zombie-action and the hilarious concept cannot get me past the awful, dreadful Jane Austen miasma that suffuses the text.

      I honestly am at a loss as to why Jane Austen is a revered author of classic english prose.

      I apologize to the millions of people who dearly love Jane Austen (appears to usually correlate with that second x-chromosome), but heav’nhelpme I cannot read her stuff without my mind wandering to ANYTHING else. It is hard to keep track of who is whom when page after page is dedicated to Miss Bingley’s vapid drivel and who likes whom and what balls will be had where and when.

      Even wonderful zombie action cannot offset it. That makes Jane Austen more powerfully horrible than the undead.

      Maybe THAT is why she’s a “classic author”. A good portion f my brain in high school was, indeed, devoured by her undead, yet unliving prose.

      -Sorry. -Chris ducks down-

      • Elizabeth says:

        Ok — I won’t throw anything!

        While I love “Pride and Prejudice” and enjoy “Sense and Sensibility,” the other books have not resonated as well with me. I’ve tried “Emma” several times and can’t get through it.

    • Nicholas says:

      That’s my approach too. I usually have anywhere from half-a-dozen to a score of books going at once. Gets odd, though, when some of the books are similar and I make an allusion in conversation to something I’ve read–and I cite the wrong book!

  2. So interesting to read your comments about line-editing, after teaching a basic college english composition course this evening, where we worked on creating sentences. My purpose was to encourage students to experiment with words by adding synonyms, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, etc. to the basic sentence: “The man walked.”

    But, must admit I ended the evening by reminding students that (IMHO), the best writing is based on strong, concrete verbs. That’s always my best advice. Use good verbs.

    • fsdthreshold fsdthreshold says:

      Hi, Jane, and welcome to this blog! I hope you’ll stick around!

      You are so right about verbs. Strong, concrete verbs are at the center of it all — quite literally, nothing happens without them!

      We should do a blog post about editing techniques! I’ll make a note of that, too.

      It’s wonderful that you help students to write better! I know that’s one of the most rewarding jobs there is. I always make the point with my students that I know they want to make their marks on the world: they’re starting out on career paths and want to make the world somehow better for their having been in it. And I truly believe that, if you want to have a lasting impact and make any change for the better, one of the very best things you can do is learn how to write. Almost everything we know about the ancient world, we know because someone at some point wrote things down.

      I know what you mean: at first, most students don’t put enough “life” into their sentences. When they learn they can and that words have power, they tend to go hog wild, piling on the adjectives and adverbs. In time, they learn the elegant power of verbs, and the clarity in the lack of clutter. Keep up your good work!

  3. Catherine says:

    Okay, Swedish movies and Swedish books . . . now if you want a really good fiddle tune, look up a Swedish waltz! I know a couple of amazing ones . . . those Swedes must be doing something right, hmmm?

    Happy reading, Fred!

    • fsdthreshold fsdthreshold says:

      Thanks, Catherine!
      Yes, those Swedes are pretty cool!
      I think I remember learning that Beowulf himself was a Swede — isn’t that right, all ye who know Scandinavian geography and history? Wasn’t “Geatland” in Sweden? So of COURSE we should be expecting great things from them!

  4. Gabe Dybing says:

    Hey, Fred.

    I just want to say that, by reading Gaiman’s short stories, you’re reading, in my opinion, his best work. Whenever I’m reciting my grocery list of admirees and influences, I hear myself saying, “… and Gaiman’s short stories.” My favorite novel of his was _American Gods_, which Gaiman describes as an “epic.” His only “true adult novel,” in Gaiman’s estimation, has been _Anansi Boys_.

    Since my teaching year just started, I’m not really reading much… Poe, in preparation for WFC. I’ll be digging into Kierkegaard to continue some scholarly work on Rolvaag. Lots of poetry (and of course lots of Millay!) because I’m taking a class. The books that I’m having my students read…

    During “free” moments I find myself reading something out of _Asimov’s Science Fiction_ or _Little Women_, which I’ve been living with for quite some time.

    • fsdthreshold fsdthreshold says:

      I have some friends who are crazy about Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere, so that’s one I intend to read eventually. Anansi Boys was given to us in the freebies bag at the World Fantasy Convention one year. (I always want to call it Anasazi Boys.)

      I’m glad to hear you say his short stories are his best work. It just wouldn’t be right if he could also do novels this well!

      So you’re actually doing homework for WFC! Very cool!

      • Nicholas says:

        If you go back to his previous story collection, there are some absolute corkers in there! There is one about a wild cat a family adopts (the cat turns out to be a guardian that protects the home from demonic entities trying to get in–each morning the cat is more battered and bloody) that you would love!

  5. Julie says:

    I recently finished _The Secret of Lost Things_ by Sheridan Hay. I liked that the protagonist had red hair (like me) but the rest of the book was a big disappointment. Despite being a librarian, I am not a fan of books about bookstores and book collectors.

    I am currently reading _The Lies of Locke Lamora_ by Scott Lynch. It’s good, but I can tell it’s going to take me a long time to get through it. (Not that it’s a bad thing!)

    By far my favorite reading this summer has been in the form of audio books read by the insanely talented book reader, Jim Dale. I listened to _Peter and the Star Catchers_ and now am listening to _Peter and the Shadow Theives_ both by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. I’m having a ball listening to these! They are full of swashbuckling, high-seas adventure. A must read/listen for any fan of the Peter Pan tale.

    • fsdthreshold fsdthreshold says:

      So do you like those Cornelia Funke books — Inkheart, etc.? I have the impression that they’re about booklovers, book collectors, etc.

      I’ve wondered whether those Peter Pan books by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson were any good. Thanks!

      I remember you were listening to books before it became all trendy to do so. Aren’t you the one who, like me, has listened to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried?

  6. Elizabeth says:

    Let’s see…

    I finished reading “Enchanted Night” (on the recommendation of a friend, wink-wink). I’m in the middle of Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman In White”. At some point I want to finish Dahlquist’s “The Glass Books of the Dream-Eaters”, which I am determined to read the whole way through.

    I also want to read Tad Williams “Shadowplay”, but that’ll come in October.

  7. Chris says:

    So far my summer reading has been spotty and unkempt. I started to read “The Fountainhead” because I’m meeting so many annoying people who love Ayn Rand that I have to be able to complain about them knowledgeably, but then got sidetracked by a new “second job” as a chemistry tutor for AP chemistry high school kids which means I have to go back and re-read the intro chemistry books which is fun for about 15 minutes at a stretch. In between times I’ve been trying to get back onto “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” but you can see how that’s going for me (vide supra).

    I did, however, recently find a great “fable” about significant digits in a chemistry site! Talk about enthralling! I bet even Geiman would be tasked to make significant figures interesting.

  8. Catherine says:

    Hey, Fred — you might want to block me from this blog. Last night I was walking and I saw, dimly shadowed through the clouds to the east, this red ball. It was HUGE! And I said: “What the heck is the sun doing in the east at this time of day?!” My mother said: “That’s the MOON, Catherine.” Here it’s so cloudy around harvest moon time that I don’t recognize it when I see it! (I should have looked to see if it had eyes and a weird-grinning mouth . . .)

  9. Salsify says:

    I’ve been following the blog for awhile now and was utterly disappointed when I heard I missed a chance to leave a comment about my all time favorite books months ago. Talking about my summer reads is just about as good.

    I love to READ! No seriously if you are familiar with Borders you’ll know that for every $150 you spend you get a $5 reward…I’ve had six of those this year. I have a problem. I just love words and am so excited to start a new book; my favorite part is when a story gets so believable that I wish it was real. When I start to feel bored or the pages seem to go on forever I know it’s because I can’t wait to pick up the next one in my pile.

    My summer reading list has included:
    North and South. I loved the book but I kept waiting for a kiss that never came.
    The Jane Austen Book Club. Decent.
    Murder on the Orient Express. Not my favorite.
    Watership Down. Loved it.
    Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. No I had never read it. I enjoyed it enough to purchase the rest of the series.
    The Elegance of a Hedgehog. If you are a word lover, you will love this book. It is amazing.
    And currently I’m reading Gifts. I like it enough that I plan on naming a child after one of the main characters.

    Thank you for allowing me to indulge myself for the space of a few paragraphs.

  10. SwordLily says:

    Well if the last full moon (last Friday) had a name, I would call it the Full White Moon. The nights have been getting very chill for summer, though the days stay uncomfortably warm under the sun’s protective rays. There has been much rain in the last weeks, but now the sky has cleared up, and I observed the moon, a clear, serene white, poised like a great queen in the dark night. In my city sky she had but one attendant, a star as white as she, shining starkly beautiful, a safe distance from her mistress’s iridescent gown.

  11. Chris says:

    Recently on my drive into work in the wee hours I noted our full moon just setting. It was a brilliant red, likely due to the fires in Los Angeles.

  12. Daylily says:

    Fred, I do not find a bit unusual that you do not read fiction while you are writing your own fiction. When I am actively creating a new composition, I generally avoid listening to recorded music. The recordings interfere with the creative process, which includes listening to the new piece over and over in my mind’s ear. It is then that grocery store music, restaurant music and telephone “hold” music become especially agonizing.

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