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THE BATTLE OF ARGINUSAE :
VICTORY AT SEA AND ITS TRAGIC AFTERMATH IN THE FINAL YEARS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
By Debra Hamel


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KILLING ERATOSTHENES:
A TRUE CRIME STORY
FROM ANCIENT ATHENS
By Debra Hamel


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READING HERODOTUS:
A GUIDED TOUR THROUGH THE WILD BOARS, DANCING SUITORS, AND CRAZY TYRANTS OF THE HISTORY
By Debra Hamel


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THE MUTILATION OF THE HERMS:
UNPACKING AN ANCIENT MYSTERY
By Debra Hamel


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TRYING NEAIRA:
THE TRUE STORY OF A COURTESAN'S SCANDALOUS LIFE IN ANCIENT GREECE
By Debra Hamel


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PRISONERS OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR
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SOCRATES AT WAR:
THE MILITARY HEROICS OF AN ICONIC INTELLECTUAL
By Debra Hamel


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ANCIENT GREEKS IN DRAG:
THE LIBERATION OF THEBES AND OTHER ACTS OF HEROIC TRANSVESTISM
By Debra Hamel


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IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY TWEET:
FIVE HUNDRED 1ST LINES IN 140 CHARACTERS OR LESS
By Debra Hamel


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I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them.



  
From a random review:

  

« Sholes, Lynn; Moore, Joe: The Last Secret | Main | Snicket, Lemony: The End »

Prose, Francine: Reading Like a Writer

  

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HarperCollins © 2006, 288 pages [amazon]

In her book Reading Like a Writer Francine Prose, herself the author of some 14 novels as well as other works of nonfiction, advocates "close reading"--reading fiction "word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer has made"--both as a means of appreciating literature and as a practical aid in writing one's own prose. After introducing her method in chapter one, Prose spends the next eight chapters showing us how it's done, focusing initially on individual words, then sentences, and broadening her focus eventually to consider characters and dialogue and narration.

In fact it is a greater achievement to make a character engaging if he is not someone the average person can identify with: Patricia Highsmith's sociopath Tom Ripley is a great example of the type.Prose quotes extensively from a great many authors--Austen and Carver and Hemingway and Le Carré and a host of writers I'd not heard of before--and after each passage takes it apart for us, pointing out how the author establishes the nature of a relationship via dialogue, for example, or makes a story credible through the use of a well-chosen detail. There is much here to think on. Prose explains, for example, that dialogue in real life is rarely a simple matter of two or more speakers exchanging information, and so it is nearly always a mistake to make fictional dialogue merely expository:

"...most conversations involve a sort of sophisticated multitasking. When we humans speak, we are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal. And sometimes we are hoping to prevent the listener from noticing what we are not saying, which is often not merely distracting but, we fear, as audible as what we are saying. As a result, dialogue usually contains as much or even more subtext than it does text. More is going on under the surface than on it. One mark of bad written dialogue is that it is only doing one thing, at most, at once."
She illustrates multi-layered dialogue with excerpts from Henry Green's novel Loving and David Gates's story "The Wonders of the Invisible World," among others. In the same chapter Prose criticizes the sort of writing one finds too often in historical novels:
"This notion of dialogue as a pure expression of character that (like character itself) transcends the specifics of time and place may be partly why the conversations in the works of writers such as Austen and Brontë often sound fresh and astonishingly contemporary, and quite unlike the stiff, mannered, archaic speech we find in bad historical novels and in those medieval fantasies in which young men always seem to be saying things like, 'Have I passed the solemn and sacred initiation test, o venerable hunt master?'"
Elsewhere Prose reminds us that characters don't have to be likeable, just interesting. In fact it is a greater achievement to make a character engaging if he is not someone the average person can identify with: Patricia Highsmith's sociopath Tom Ripley is a great example of the type.

In the book's final two chapters Prose writes, respectively, about Anton Chekhov--whose stories serve to remind us that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to literature--and about the benefits to writers of reading: reading allows one to see examples of prose done well, and it shows us that there are innumerable ways of going about writing well:

"Reading can show you how capacious and stretchy fiction is, how much it can accommodate, and how far it has expanded beyond the straight and narrow path from point A to point B."
Writers, that is, should have the courage to experiment with their own particular talents.

Reading Like a Writer is not, strictly speaking, a "guide" for writers, as its subtitle asserts, at least not in the traditional sense. Readers--writers--should not expect to find in Prose's pages specific directions for creating characters and writing dialogue and so on. But what Prose has to say can certainly be a help to writers. Reading her book is probably very similar to sitting in on one of the author's reading seminars: we're invited to sample a bunch of great stories, and part of what makes them great is pointed out to us, and we can go on from this experience, presumably, to apply what we've learned to appreciating literature more fully on our own. Prose teaches well. And along the way she introduces us to a great many authors we may not otherwise have heard of. Readers will likely leave her book with an author or two whose work they'll want to read more of. Another service Prose performs in her book.

Review summary: In Reading Like a Writer Francine Prose advocates "close reading"--reading fiction "word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer has made"--both as a means of appreciating literature and as a practical aid in writing one's own prose. She dissects passages from a great many authors, pointing out, for example, how the author has made a story credible through the use of a well-chosen detail. She concludes with a chapter on the benefits of close reading, among them that it shows us that there are innumerable ways of writing well. Despite its subtitle Prose's book is not, strictly speaking, a "guide" for writers. She doesn't teach us how to write. Instead we sample great stories with her guidance, so that we may go on to appreciate literature more fully on our own.

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Comments

1.

I really appreciate this book, and the competition you held which led me to it.

2.

I often notice that an autor is particularly adept at dialogue or description, but this review makes me curious about how it works on a more sophisticated level. Thanks for the review!

3.

Jen and Lee, thanks to both of you for the comments!

4.

I was hoping I wouldn't be drawn in by this book when I first saw your post. You know, one book I don't feel compelled to add to my TBR list. That didn't happen. As I read I became more interested. I'll be buying, reading and marking in this book. Thanks for sharing such a great review.

5.

I never know when one of my reviews is going to attract interest. This one has attracted more than usual, which I never would have guessed.

Anyway, sorry for adding to the TBR stacks, booklogged!

I should add that I thought the first couple chapters less interesting than what followed. But this could have been just me: her focus initially was on small units of writing--words, then sentences--and for me it got more interesting when the units got bigger.




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About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.

  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  






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Book-blog.com by Debra Hamel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Noncommercial - No Derivative Works 3.0 License.