Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review - The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

A few years ago, I read Bram Stoker's Dracula for the first time and I loved it. It was a very different book than I expected it would be - more the story of Jonathan and Mina Harker than Dracula, himself, though Dracula still hovered over every single page. When Elizabeth Kostova's runaway bestseller, The Historian debuted, I didn't have time to read it, though it sounded interesting. I liked the fact that it focused more on the history of Dracula rather than on his need to "feed" on the blood of living human beings.

The always unnamed narrator of The Historian opens the book in Oxford, England in 2008, then a page or so later takes us back to 1972, when she was sixteen and living with her diplomat father, Paul in Amsterdam, Holland. One day she makes an interesting discovery in her father's library - an ancient book bearing no text, but whose center pages depict a woodcut of a dragon with spread wings, outstretched claws, and a curled tail. Along with the book, she also finds a packet of yellowing letters addressed to "My dear and unfortunate successor."

When the narrator asks her father about the book and the letters, he takes us back to the 1950s as he tells his daughter a sad, sad story of another, almost identical book that belonged to the author of the letters, Paul's dear friend and university advisor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi.

It's Paul's copy of the book and Professor Rossi's mysterious disappearance that set this story in motion. Paul launches a lengthy quest for Professor Rossi that takes him to France, Slovenia, Turkey, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria (and perhaps a few places I've missed). He also joins forces with a strange woman of Romanian ancestry whose home is (conveniently) Budapest, though she's studying in the US. This woman, whose name is Helen, will play a pivotal role in both the resolution of the story and in Paul's life.

One of The Historian's biggest strengths is also one of its greatest weaknesses, at least for some readers. Kostova has an uncanny ability to describe a place and set a mood, and apparently she loves to do so because she does so much of the time. For me, the description was beautiful and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I have to admit there was so much of it, it did become wearying at times. The following is just one example. It's the narrator's first impressions of the Slovenian countryside:

This is old country. Every autumn mellows it a little more, in aeternum, each beginning with the same three colors: a green landscape, two or three yellow leaves falling through a gray afternoon. I suppose the Romans - who left their walls here in their gargantuan arenas to the west, on the coast - saw the same autumn and gave the same shiver. When my father's car swung through the gates of the oldest of Julian cities, I hugged myself. For the first time, I had been struck by the excitement of the traveler who looks history in her subtle face.

I love travel, and I love traveling in Eastern Europe, so the surfeit of description really didn't bother me. For me, it was one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book, though I do know many readers who disliked it and found it both intrusive and tiring.

Although I found The Historian almost wearyingly long, I really can't say what Kostova could have cut from her book, only that she should have compressed her story somewhat. The problem wasn't really the individual parts, but the sum of those parts. Too many times, one part was just like another part. It just took place in a different location.

The characters, too, had their problems. There was no tonal variety in their speech. Each one sounded just like the other down to his or her constant interjection of the phrase, " do you say in English...." then going on to supply the perfect (and perfectly unusual) English word. Now that was wearying and cloying.

It might surprise some readers, but in a book that centers on Dracula, Dracula, himself doesn't even put in an appearance until near the end of this almost 800-page tome. Although his appearance is, in my opinion, too brief and too devoid of power, Kostova's description of him is chillingly masterful. Dracula's scenes and set pieces are, perhaps, the very best in the book.

While I was impressed with Kostova's ability to keep three overlapping story threads going at the same time (Rossi's in 1930, Paul's and Helen's in the 1950s, and the unnamed narrator's in 1972) without ever leaving the reader disoriented, I was disappointed that the payoff for the reader, after slogging through such a doorstopper of a book, was so little. Kostova said she wanted to write a literary novel, but The Historian is definitely not a literary novel. This is a plot-driven book, not a character-driven one and it belongs squarely in the mainstream "historical thriller" genre. And really, for a book that's totally plot driven, there's far too little action in The Historian.

Despite my criticism, I really can't say I disliked reading the book and I really can't point to a specific reason why. Perhaps it's because I like travelogues and I love Eastern Europe, especially the Balkans. I liked being there, if only in my imagination.

In the end, however, Kostova's penchant for travelogue and excessive descriptive detail simply sucked the life out of her book faster than any vampire could such the life out of a living human being.

3/5 I "sort of" liked it.

Recommended: Only if you know what you're getting yourself into.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Book Review - Mysteries - My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

For some reason I can't figure out, Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel isn't as widely known or read as Rebecca, and though I feel both are certainly literary masterpieces, I greatly prefer My Cousin Rachel over Rebecca (though I do love both).

My Cousin Rachel is a "deeper" book than Rebecca. The characterization is richer and more complex. The plot is far more intricate, maybe even too intricate for the taste of some, and perhaps this is why the book is not more widely read. Maybe it's just a simple case of marketing.

For those of you not familiar with the book, My Cousin Rachel opens in 1840s Cornwall and revolves around Philip Ashley, a young man set to inherit the estate of his cousin, Ambrose, the man who raised him.

Ambrose married a much younger woman, Rachel, in Italy, and before his death, his letters to Philip indicated that all was not well in the marriage and that Rachel might not be the sweet, innocent girl she presented herself to be to Ambrose. Philip, who genuinely loves his cousin, goes to investigate, but by the time he arrives at Ambrose's villa just outside Florence, Ambrose has died, and under mysterious circumstances.

Philip returns to England and to the estate he's inherited in Cornwall, but his life is soon disrupted by the arrival of Rachel, herself. From the very beginning, Philip doesn't trust this beautiful and mysterious woman, who at times, seems almost "too good to be true." Complicating matters is the fact that Philip, himself, falls desperately in love with her, though at times, he feels that Rachel is planning on murdering him just like Philip feels she murdered Ambrose.

Although de Maurier's plotting in My Cousin Rachel is indeed intricate, the tension and suspense flow primarily from her richness and complexity of character, instead. We find ourselves desperately wanting to know exactly who Rachel is and what she wants from Philip. Did she kill Ambrose, as Philip suspects or did she love him dearly, as she contends? Is Philip correct in his assumptions about Rachel, and what is he going to do about the fact that he, himself, now loves her desperately? One thing we do know for sure is that the whole scenario is spiraling uncontrollably downward and it's going to end in tragedy – for someone. But who? And what will be the consequence?

Another remarkable thing about My Cousin Rachel is its atmosphere. The sense of foreboding and doom is thicker than an old-fashioned London "pea souper." Once you get "into" the book, you can't put it down and once you finish it, you can't forget it. Ever. I first read the book as a teenager and I can't forget it (nor do I want to) twenty years later.

The only book that comes close to My Cousin Rachel, at least in my opinion, is Arthur Philips' 2007 publication, Angelica, set in late-Victorian London.

While any time is a good time to read My Cousin Rachel, wintertime is best. This is a book meant to be read by a cozy fire, with a cup of hot chocolate or mulled cider in hand. However, I first read it during the summertime, in my mother's beautiful English style garden.

Whenever you choose to read this masterful book, please, just read it. If you love a good mystery, if you love richness of character, if you love atmosphere aplenty, if you love everything a master writer can do, you certainly won't regret the time spent with this once-in-a-lifetime book.


Recommended: Definitely, and especially for those who love Victorian literature.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Coming Up - Sarah Palin Can See Joe McGinniss From Her House

Super author Joe McGinniss is writing a book about super party crasher Sarah Palin, and to help with his research, he's rented the house in Alaska right next door to her's. If you don't know who Joe McGinniss is, you should. He's probably most famous for his book, Fatal Vision about convicted family murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald. Fatal Vision is one terrific read, whether you're "into" true crime or not. The tentative title of Joe's book about Sarah Palin is: Sarah Palin: The Year of Living Dangerously. It's due out in the fall of 2012.

Now, every good writer (and some who aren't writers at all) know that in order to write well about a subject, one has to know that subject. McGinniss actually moved in with MacDonald in MacDonald's southern California condo in order to write about him. He attended every day of MacDonald's trial. MacDonald, of course, was shocked and mortified when McGinniss came to the conclusion that he (MacDonald) was guilty. (I have to add, I don't see how anyone with even a smidgen of intelligence and critical thinking skills could come to any other conclusion.)

Despite MacDonald's shock, I think McGinniss played fair. He didn't promise MacDonald that he was going to write a book about him that would glorify him and come to the ultimate conclusion that MacDonald was innocent of the murders of which he'd been accused. In fact, McGinniss' written contract with MacDonald stated very clearly and explicitly that McGinniss would write the facts surrounding the MacDonald murders and Jeffrey MacDonald, himself and that he (McGinniss) would be free to come to any conclusion he felt the evidence supported, i.e., MacDonald's innocence in the murders of his pregnant wife and young daughters, MacDonald's guilt in the murders, or the fact that it was impossible to come to any conclusion either way. As far as I can see, and I've read Fatal Vision several times and watched the movie adaptation, every conclusion Joe McGinniss comes to in his book is supported by very strong, almost indisputable evidence that MacDonald is, in fact, guilty.

There are those who point to MacDonald's civil suit against Joe McGinniss, those who never tire of saying that MacDonald "won" that civil suit. No, he didn't. The jury was hung, and McGinniss' publisher offered MacDonald a settlement rather than face a long, drawn out legal battle, something publishers often do. MacDonald took the settlement, but he didn't even see most of the money. Most of it went to Mildred Kassab and Dorothy (Perry) MacDonald, the first the mother of Colette Stevenson MacDonald and both the grandmothers of the MacDonald children. Jeffrey MacDonald would have made out far better financially if he would have just stood by his written contract with McGinniss.

Sarah Palin, who, remember, has an undergraduate degree in journalism, must not have read Fatal Vision and must not be aware of Joe McGinniss' track record of "playing fair." (Remember, Joe McGinniss did not promise to write a flattering book about Jeffrey MacDonald, and Jeffrey MacDonald knew that. He promised to write the facts as he saw them.) Well, Sarah's now accusing McGinniss of "stalking her." My goodness. The last time I checked, Joe McGinniss had every right to rent a house next door to Sarah Palin. He hasn't been seen peering into the Palin's windows, trespassing on the Palin's property, or removing mail from the Palin's mail box. He's and working in close proximity to Sarah, herself. And I think he's only going to stay for five months. As long as Sarah's not doing anything (else) to be ashamed of, what does she have to worry about?

Besides stalking, Sarah likes to accuse McGinniss of "yellow journalism." Sarah, despite her undergraduate degree in journalism, believes a story is untrue if she, personally, dislikes it or disagrees with it. Hmmm. I thought "yellow journalism" was something different, but then, what do I know? I can't see Russia (or Joe McGinniss) from my house and I studied drama and French in college, not journalism.

So far, I've heard nothing at all from Joe McGinniss about Sarah Palin, but I've heard plenty from Sarah Palin about Joe McGinniss. Sarah and Company have taken to her Facebook page and posted a photo of Joe McGinniss standing on the deck of his very own rented home, minding his very own business and not intruding on anyone. Sarah has implied, several times over, that McGinniss is a voyeuristic borderline pedophile. (Oh, my goodness, I don't think anything could be further from the truth.) Now, Sarah might not like Joe McGinniss living next door to her for the next five months, but by posting the implication that McGinniss is a criminal or at least has criminal and sociopathic tendencies, Sarah is, herself, engaging in "yellow journalism" of the brightest hue.

And who's stalking who here? McGinniss simply moved into a house in Alaska, a house that was for rent. It's Sarah Palin who's blogging obsessively about Joe McGinnis. It's Sarah Palin who's posting photos of Joe McGinniss and invading his privacy. It's Sarah and the former "first dude" of Alaska, "the Todd" who erected a fourteen foot fence along their property. I wonder why they did that? I do not know, but I think, come autumn 2012, we all shall see.

Why is Sarah Palin so uncomfortable with Joe McGinniss living next door to her for the next five months? What has she got to hide? Is she afraid he won't find her attractive in her running shorts? Is she afraid he won't keep a supply of sugar on hand so she can borrow a cup for homemade chocolate chip cookies? Or is she afraid that McGinniss will produce a book that tarnishes her "Mom, America, and apple pie" image? A book that, like Fatal Vision is backed up with irrefutable evidence and facts? And why doesn't Sarah, if she has nothing to hide, simply sit down with Joe McGinniss and talk to him? After all, in my humble opinion, the woman is a publicity hound, and Joe McGinniss is one terrific writer, who wants to give her some extra publicity and face time. We should all be so lucky. It seems Sarah, who says she's so sure of herself and her "Tea Party" friends, would welcome the book, especially with elections coming up, instead of doing everything she can to avoid its author.

And it isn't like Joe McGinnis is going after some babe in the woods, either. Sarah Palin chose the limelight when she chose politics, and according to her, her entire family was "on board." And furthermore, she not only allowed, but welcomed, being thrust into that limelight when she accepted the Republicans' offer to be John McCain's running mate on the 2008 ticket. You choose to live in the limelight, your life is "fair game." McGinniss isn't stalking Sarah Palin or any member of her family. He isn't lying about her. But I think Sarah Palin is coming perilously close to stalking and lying about Joe McGinniss.

In closing, I do know one or two other things. I know I trust Joe McGinniss to give me the truth, and I trust him to back up that truth with evidence and facts. I also know I'm going to be first in line to buy Joe McGinniss' book when it comes out in 2012. Honestly, I can't wait. If I'm really lucky, maybe he'll send me an autographed copy.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Writing Tips - Until Your Novel Sells

I know many people who are counting on becoming rich and famous "when their novel is published." Well, that might happen to one or two of those persons. For example, J.K. Rowling got super rich with the "Harry Potter" franchise. For many years, Stephen King had the market cornered on the horror novel. John Grisham has certainly made more than a splash with the legal thriller. Alexander McCall Smith and Elizabeth George probably have no money worries with their recurring characters of Precious Ramotswe and Inspector Lynley.

However, consider this: Stephen King was living in a trailer, while his wife worked the third shift at Dunkin' Donuts (or Krispy Kreme, I can't remember which) when his first book, Carrie, was accepted for publication. He was given an advance of $2,500 and sales of the hardcover edition were middling at best. However, Carrie was picked up by Hollywood filmmakers and also distributed as a mass market paperback. Those two facts helped push sales of the book into the millions and King's career was off and running.

Many embarrassed New York agents and publishers told Grisham "no one" would want to read another legal thriller, and they passed on The Firm. With the spectacular success of The Pelican Brief, these same embarrassed agents and publishers realized how very wrong they'd been, however there are stories about Grisham selling copies of The Firm out of the trunk of his car in Mississippi. And we all know J.K. Rowling spent years as a welfare mom, writing the "Harry Potter" books in coffee shops so she could stay warm.

After Dan Brown wrote Deception Point, not many people bought the book and not many people had heard of Brown. However, Brown gambled and poured his advance for The Da Vinci Code right back into promoting that book. His gamble paid off, but there was always the risk that it might have failed.

Elizabeth Kostova sold her debut novel, The Historian in two days for $2.5 million, and Hollywood paid in the vicinity of another $1.5 million for the film rights. In addition, Little, Brown and Co., her publisher, spent something close to $500,000 publicizing the book. They saw it as "The Da Vinci Code Meets Dracula." In some ways, they were right, in some, wrong, however the advertising did pay off, and The Historian, which became a runaway bestseller, is the only novel to date to debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. However, what if Dan Brown had never written The Da Vinci Code? What if it hadn't been as spectacularly successful as it was? Kostova spent about a decade researching and writing her book and that time paid off, but as far as advances go, she's the exception, not the rule.

A very well written debut novel that's expected to garner quite a few sales, might get an author an advance of $10,000 to $30,000 from a big publishing house. A smaller house might only offer $1,000 to $5,000, but keep in mind that this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, Tinkers, by Paul Harding was turned down by every major and minor traditional publishing house until a small medical press gave Harding a $1,000 advance and published his novella. Then came the Pulitzer. As for the future, well, that remains to be seen.

Because they are expected to garner more sales, mainstream novels generally command higher advances than do literary or genre novels, but not always. The "Harry Potter" books are certainly genre novels, as are the novels of Mary Higgins Clark, but then Mary Higgins Clark, who holds the record for the largest advance in publishing history, also had an excellent track record before she was given that huge advance. (That advance, which was in the vicinity of $45 million was for a five-book deal, so that works out to $9 million/book. The highest single book advance was an estimated $10 million, paid to Bill Clinton for his autobiography, now said to have been broken by Oprah Winfrey for her latest diet and exercise book, co-authored with her personal trainer, Bob Greene.) If you think you can compete with Mary Higgins Clark, Bill Clinton or Oprah, then I wish you lots of luck. I know I can't begin to.

You do hear stories almost every week about a debut author who's garnered a big advance or made it to number one on the bestseller list. One such example is Kathryn Stockett and her wonderful book, The Help. However, Ms. Stockett is very upfront about the fact that it took a long, long time to find a publisher who would take a chance on her book. Not every book sells in two days or even two hundred days. And, it's good to keep in mind that for every novelist whose book does land on the bestseller list, there are many more novelists whose books are published, but for very modest advances and never even see the back end of the bestseller list. Ninety-five percent (95%) of all the money made in book publishing is shared among the top five percent (5%) of authors. In fact, your first novel might never be published. Mine wasn't, but that's fine with me. It was a wonderful learning experience for which I'm very grateful. I had tremendous fun with it.

All this isn't said to deter anyone who really loves writing from doing just that. It's just good to keep the fact in mind that it's more probable than not that you're never going to get rich from novel writing. In fact, there is really only one good reason for deciding to write a book and that reason is because you love writing fiction, you feel happier when you're writing than when you're not writing.

Some of us have more imagination than others. Some of us are better natural storytellers. However, no one is a "born novelist." There's a huge misconception among many aspiring writers that when they want to write a book all they have to do is put pen to paper and the words will magically flow. They won't. Or if they do, they're likely to be terrible. Writers, like painters, dancers, and other artists have to master their craft, and if they are going to master it, they have to work at it every day. Far too few do. Did you know that 199 out of every 200 manuscripts that cross the desk of an agent or an editor are rejected immediately. The most common reason being that the writing is just plain awful, though there are other reasons, too. For example, the manuscript you submit might not "fit" that particular editor's list, or the publishing house might be publishing something similar, so wouldn't be interested in your manuscript no matter how well it's written.

You can help increase the odds of getting published by honing the craft of writing on a daily basis. Never think you "know it all" or that you're "good enough." You aren't. Even Nobel Prize winners can make a mistake or two or three now and then.

Ultimately, no one should write novels to make money. That's a side benefit. Unless you're a celebrity or you're very talented and very lucky both, you probably won't make more than $20,000 to $100,000 during your entire writing career. However, if writing does make you happy, if you're going to be satisfied with a midlist book, but one that is definitely published traditionally, if you're willing to keep your day job to pay the bills, then don't let anything deter you.

I wish you all the best.