Literary Corner Cafe

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Analyzing the Popularity of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy

No one, and I mean no one – in publishing could have predicted the huge success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. In fact, Larsson’s trilogy goes beyond a "huge success." It even eclipses the Harry Potter books, though that comparison may be a little unfair since Harry was written primarily for a young adult audience (though I know plenty of adults who read the books), and it spawned a plethora of merchandise as well as book sales. Stieg Larsson’s trilogy is that rare thing in publishing – a phenomenon.

The first book in the trilogy, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo certainly doesn’t begin like it’s going to be a page-turning thriller, and though it picks up the pace somewhere around the book’s middle, it never really turns into a page-turner. Larsson first gives us a lengthy family tree filled with (to an American) odd, and sometimes unpronounceable, Scandinavian names. The book then begins slowly, with lots of backstory and government politics. It’s set in Sweden, a country that’s not high on most Americans’ "must visit" lists, and it’s a "book in translation," with that translation sometimes being less than elegant and compelling. (Unfortunately, I find this to be true of most Nordic crime fiction.)

Yet the Millennium Trilogy has sold more then forty-five (yes, 45) million copies worldwide and is still selling (in fact, Knopf Doubleday recently issued a three-volume boxed set, just in time for Christmas gift giving), and it’s projected that by the year’s end, the books will rack up more then fifteen million copies sold in 2010 alone. That’s more copies sold than the recent works of Stephen King, John Grisham, Dan Brown, and Stephanie Meyer combined, and their books are certainly no slouches when it comes to sales.

The trilogy has even spawned movie versions in Larsson’s native Sweden, and if that weren’t enough, David Fincher has already begun shooting a big-budget version in English with Daniel Craig. (Good. I love Daniel Craig and I don’t like to read subtitles because I want to devote all my attention to the visuals. I can tell you, the Swedish versions contained gorgeous cinematography.)

Today, when marketing a book plays a more important role than ever before, and at a time when an author who hopes for big sales absolutely has to get involved in that marketing, Larsson managed to become the phenomenon of the twenty-first century without attending one book signing or giving one author interview. The poor man died tragically, at the young age of fifty, in 2004, very shortly after presenting his publisher with the full manuscripts for all three books. He never even lived to see his manuscripts in published form.

Now Nordic thrillers and police procedurals aren’t unknown to American book buyers, and some of the authors (Sweden’s Henning Mankell, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Norway’s Karin Fossum, and Iceland’s Arnaldur Indridason, to name a few) have even built up loyal followings, but none of them can even come close to the success Larsson has achieved. So what’s propelling Larsson’s immense popularity? Especially when his books are rather convoluted and complex, and the narrative is sometimes downright messy, rather than lean and taut?

The biggest reason for the popularity of the Millennium Trilogy is the character of Lisbeth Salander. I put off reading the trilogy for a long time precisely because I didn’t think I would like Salander. I’ll admit it: anything "punk" or "Goth" turns me off. And Lisbeth is both "punk" and "Goth" in spades. When I first "met" Lisbeth, I couldn’t believe "my" beloved Pippi Longstocking grew up so wayward and rebellious. Lisbeth wears her hair chopped short, she rides a motorcycle, she dresses in black leather, she has a definite bent towards violence (in her mid-twenties, she still needs a court appointed guardian), and she’s bisexually kinky. And if this weren’t enough, she has multiple piercings and her entire back is covered with – yes, a dragon tattoo. (In the books, she has multiple tattoos and the dragon tattoo isn’t quite so large.) Oh, she’s also a master computer hacker, and this is the only thing I really admired about her character at first glance (she’s not a cracker, she’s a hacker, and if you’re a writer and don’t know the difference, you’d better find out now.) She is, as editor Otto Penzler says, "the most interesting character I’ve read since Hannibal Lecter. To me the series doesn’t exist without her." And, despite the fact that I can’t see myself having lunch, or even a phone conversation, with Lisbeth Salander, I have to agree with Penzler. Salander is one heck of a literary creation. Like her or not, she’s the kind of literary creation every writer dreams of.

Despite the uniqueness of Salander, she isn’t the protagonist of the novels. That role belongs to Mikael Blomkvist, a very radical, left-wing investigative journalist, who resembles the late Stieg Larsson in many ways. (And so does the Swedish actor who plays him in the films, at least physically.) And, although not the books’ protagonist, Salander often, and sometimes, covertly, conspires with Blomkvist to solve...whatever needs solving. Odd as it seems, the collaboration of Salander and Blomkvist works. There’s even a touch of romance.

Now, readers love it when the real life author resembles a character in one of his or her books. Just look how Robert James Waller mined that connection in The Bridges of Madison County. His protagonist wears red suspenders, and Waller always wears red suspenders. The connections between Larsson and Blomkvist run far deeper and readers love exploring them.

And, though it’s sad, Larsson’s untimely death certainly didn’t hurt the sales of his books. In fact, his death lent a darkly romantic Byronic air to the novels, though they are dark enough on their own. Another thing Larsson’s death ensured was the fact that there would only be three books featuring Salander and Blomkvist. Three. Although well written, the charming Precious Ramotswe novels (I buy each one the day it’s released, Precious makes me happy) of Alexander McCall Smith could go on forever, as could the more serious novels featuring Scotland Yard detective Thomas Lynley, written by Elizabeth George (which I also read). Since Larsson’s books are limited to only three, book buyers feel like they’re getting something special, something akin to a limited edition, without having to pay the hefty limited edition price tag. Even if a reader ends up not liking the books very much, the fact that there will be no more still gives that reader something about the books to cherish.

Some book bloggers, agents, and editors fear a spate of Salander clones. I don’t. At least not published ones. It didn’t happen with Hannibal Lecter and I don’t think it will happen with Salander. Both are one-of-a-kind. A knock-off would seem just like a cheap trick and well, a knock-off. It wouldn’t work. Salander belongs to Larsson, just as Lecter belongs to Thomas Harris.

Americans, I think, on the whole, have often found Nordic crime fiction to be far too gloomy for their taste. With the phenomenal success of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, however, I think Americans are beginning to realize that the heavy snowfalls, the low-lying mists, and the dense pine forests of Sweden, et al. can be just the setting they’re looking for. And that’s a good thing, because if you love Larsson, there’s a lot – and I mean a lot – more Nordic crime fiction for you just waiting to be discovered. But, none of it will feature the character of Lisbeth Salander.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Review - The Classics - The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James


Note: The following review may give away minor plot details that some readers would rather avoid.

While The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl may be structurally more sophisticated works than The Portrait of a Lady and The Turn of the Screw more imaginative and unique, for me, it is The Portrait of a Lady that most clearly defines the writing of Henry James and espouses the major themes threaded throughout his work: the contrast between American naïveté and European sophistication and the conflict that arises when innocence confronts worldly experience.

The Portrait of a Lady contains all the long, convoluted sentences that characterize James' middle and later work: the rather stilted artificiality, the melodrama, the extraordinarily memorable scenes (the tea party and the scene of Madame Merle at the piano come instantly to mind, but there are others), but The Portrait of a Lady is set apart, I think, by the very "humanness" of its characters. None of them, with the exception of perhaps Gilbert Osmond are wholly "good" or wholly “bad” (and if we knew more of Osmond’s background, we could probably make allowances for him as well). They are flawed human beings who (sometimes) try to do what's best, but like all human beings, they often fail. James, himself, said, “A novel is in its broadest definition, a personal, a direct impression of life.” The only other book I've read that portrays men and women so superbly in all their human frailty is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, another timeless classic.

The Portrait of a Lady centers around young, beautiful, naïve Isabel Archer who travels from the United States to visit her wealthy relatives at an English estate, Gardencourt. Her aunt, Mrs. Touchette, needs her; her uncle, Mr. Touchette, likes her; her cousin, Ralph Touchette, loves her...perhaps not in a wholly unselfish manner, as any lover should, but he does care for her, and Isabel, it should be pointed out, is not yet capable of loving in a wholly unselfish manner, herself. In traveling to England with Mrs. Touchette, Isabel makes a life-altering choice, because in traveling to England she leaves behind in the United States one very serious suitor, Caspar Goodwood.

From the very beginning of the book, Isabel makes some disastrous choices, choices that could charitably be ascribed to her youth and naïveté, but disastrous nonetheless. Most of these disastrous decision are prompted by Isabel’s desire to be free and to experience the world on her own terms. Ralph Touchette, in a roundabout way, makes Isabel’s desired independence possible, and in so doing, he has a hand in Isabel’s ultimate destiny. However, it is when Isabel meets the very worldly and cosmopolitan Madame Merle that her destiny is finally sealed. Isabel, in all her innocence, is fascinated by Madame Merle and wants to be more like her.

It gives away nothing of the plot to tell you that eventually Mr. Touchette dies and Mrs. Touchette and Isabel set off for Paris, and ultimately, Florence. It is in Florence that Isabel once again meets the enigmatic Madame Merle and binds her (Isabel’s) destiny to the whims and foibles of a man named Gilbert Osmond, referenced above.

Isabel was certainly a pawn in a very dangerous game, but as in most “real life” situations, she’s not wholly without blame, herself. It really is not “others” who cause Isabel’s distress...it is Isabel, herself, for she is possessed, not only of innocence but also of much ambition, much stubbornness, and some degree of vanity. These qualities, more than the evil machinations of those around her prove to be her undoing.

And what about Caspar? Is he really as “good” as some readers would have us believe? I don’t think so. Caspar is a complex character, just as Lord Warburton (one of Isabel’s suitors) is a complex character. Both of them represent, to me, something that Isabel can’t, or doesn’t want to deal with. It is this “something,” or rather the lack of it, that draws her, in part, to Gilbert Osmond. Ralph Touchette, too, is a very flawed character. He loves Isabel, yes, but is he really a fine and trustworthy friend or is he, underneath his veneer of illness, as manipulative and cunning as both Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond?

And what of Madame Merle? So many people see her as simply devious, underhanded, manipulative. Yes, I saw her as all those things and plenty more besides. But I also saw her sadness at growing older, her pain over the “loss” of her child, her desperation to cling to what respectability she could. In short, I saw her as a very complex and complicated woman. She was certainly a much more complicated personality than was Isabel, whose very “innocence-to-a-fault” most certainly contributed to the “evil” in those around her.

“Complex” and “complicated” are two words that have often been used to describe the prose of Henry James during his middle and later years. (His earlier works, like Daisy Miller, were more straightforward.) Yes, James does write convoluted sentences that fold back on themselves time and time again and can go on for pages. His books are sometimes “slow” because he gets to the verb only after giving us a long string of adjectives and descriptive phrases. That’s okay; plot never takes center stage in any novel by James. His works are essentially character studies and explorations of the themes that haunted him most of his life. Although I know many people who are quite critical of James’ almost baroque style, it is languid and beautiful, and if you have the patience for it, it is soothing, almost “balm for the soul.”

Nothing in The Portrait of a Lady is “black and white.” This is a book painted in every shade of gray and that is part of what causes it to be a masterpiece and makes it so fascinating and timeless despite a plot that many people would call more than a little trite and dated. Plot, in this book, exists only in order for James to develop his characters, characters that showcase his vast knowledge of human frailty and ultimate truth.

The Portrait of a Lady is a delicious book for readers who enjoy slower-paced, deeply insightful novels. While this is an ensemble character study, it is in no way a psychological treatise (Henry James was the brother of William James). Those readers needing a fast-paced plot with plenty of story tension should be warned they won’t find it here. This book is definitely a five-star treat to be slowly savored and long remembered. The Portrait of a Lady is a classic that everyone deserves to read at least three times: once for the story, once for the prose, and once again to revisit and reacquaint themselves with James’ fascinating, flawed, but deeply human, characters.

5/5

Recommend: Definitely, without reservation. Not since Anna Karenina has there been a novel that portrays human beings in all their frailty as magnificently as this one. Both life-enriching and insightful.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Writing Tips - Crafting a Novel - Upping the Ante and Creating Suspense in Your Novel


In our day-to-day lives, tension isn’t something we like to experience. However, in a novel, tension is essential. In fact, if there’s one thing every novel needs, it’s tension. Okay, maybe Proust didn’t write with much tension, but how many people do you know who love Proust? (I do, by the way, but I’m in the minority.)

Tension is important in a novel because it keeps the reader turning the pages. It keeps him or her wanting to know. So, how do we create that much needed tension? We create it by raising the stakes. And then, raising them some more.

Presumably, there’s something in your story your protagonist needs or wants, and hopefully, something negative will happen if he doesn’t get that certain something. His or her happiness, his job, his life even, depend on him attaining that need or want. When the stakes in a story are low, the tension is almost nonexistent and the story is usually weak. Very weak. But sometimes what a character needs or wants isn’t the best thing for him. In cases like that, the external stakes are linked to your protagonist’s inner life and he’ll feel conflicted, wondering if it’s all really worth it. Your story line should force him to reconsider his priorities.

In Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, it’s easy to see how one great author (and he was great whether you like him or not) went about raising the stakes in his story. From the very beginning, we know what Santiago wants. He wants to catch a fish, the bigger the better, to restore his lost reputation and boost his self-confidence. But the story would have fallen more than a little flat if Santiago simply went out with the desire to catch a fish, then landed a marlin. So, Hemingway raises the stakes. He not only makes the fish Santiago’s snagged a big one, he makes it the biggest fish (yes, it is a marlin) Santiago’s ever snagged in his life. But even that isn’t enough.

Santiago isn’t a vital, young man. In fact, he’s older and rather frail. (The book is titled The “Old” Man and the Sea, after all.) As his battle with the fish continues, there’s always the chance that Santiago will either have to give up or be pulled too far from shore. And then there are the sharks. We can’t forget the sharks. Or Santiago’s lost harpoon.

What all this shows is that Hemingway knew very well how to raise the stakes in his story and raise them again and again. He knew how to keep readers turning pages and interested in Santiago. We want Santiago to land that fish. We’re cheering him on. Then we worry about him getting eaten by a shark. Finally, we just hope to heaven he manages to remain alive and make it back to shore.

F. Scott Fitzgerald knew how to raise the stakes as well. Well, most of the time. He certainly knew how to do it in his classic, The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby wants something as much as Santiago wanted to catch a fish. Jay Gatsby wants to win back his former love, Daisy Buchanan, but Daisy’s married “old money” and Tom Buchanan, instead. Not to be deterred, Jay Gatsby makes a fortune himself and eventually returns to posh West Egg to pursue Daisy, who is living with her husband in the even more posh East Egg. And though she admits to having once loved Gatsby, she also says she does love Tom.

A man pursuing a now married woman he once loved when both were free isn’t anything to get terribly excited about. So Fitzgerald raises the stakes by letting Tom Buchanan be very aware of Jay Gatsby’s interest in his wife. Then, he raises the stakes again, when Daisy, who’s driving Gatsby’s car, with Gatsby in the passenger’s seat, runs over Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, and kills her. Now what will Gatsby do?

Complications, changes, twists, revelations. All these and more are tools to raise the stakes in your novel. You don’t need to use them all, but you certainly need to use some.

Change backs your character into a corner, and characters who are backed into corners often react very badly, indeed. Poor Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth encountered change after change, each one backing her into a difficult corner.

The “O. Henry twist” is, thankfully, out of favor now. But you can still surprise your characters – and your readers. You just have to be a little subtler about it than O. Henry was. Henry James was in The Portrait of a Lady, and poor Isabel Archer is absolutely tormented when she realizes her true state.

Revelations are also good ways to ratchet up the suspense and keep your reader interested. In Audrey Niffenegger’s best seller, The Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s certainly a revelation when Henry tells Clare that he travels through time and that this time traveling is something over which he has no control. Niffenegger ups the ante even more when Henry reveals that he does this because of a genetic defect, one that could very well be passed on to any children the couple have (and it is, causing even more worry for the reader).

Of course you can’t up the ante in every scene or even every chapter. You have to take a breather now and then, and sometimes you’ll find the lull before the storm is more ominous than the storm, itself. In a novel, anticipatory anxiety, which causes us so much anguish in real life, is a good thing. Strive to strike a good balance between highs and lows, lulls and storms. Just make sure your lows and lulls don’t stop your story flat. That’s when readers toss the book aside and tell others they “just couldn’t get into it.”

And don’t think you’re writing in a genre that doesn’t require suspense. All novels require some degree of suspense and upping the ante, even if they’re character studies. Sure, a romance or a character driven literary novel is going to have less (or quieter) suspense than a thriller or a horror novel, but some suspense, some complications, some reversals, some twists must still be present or your reader would have no reason to keep on reading.

Remember, the best suspense involves a pared down writing style. When upping the ante, make sure every word has a purpose, even sentence is necessary, and every paragraph and scene contributes to the story line. Insert precise details, but never be vague.

You can and must insert suspense into your novel. Remember, readers have a wide variety of books from which to choose. There are so many books out there to read that none of us will ever be able to read all we want even if we live a good long time. Write your novel. Tell the story you want to tell. Just don’t let it stagnate. Not everyone is going to love your book for the simple reason that we all like different things in life. But don’t give any reader a reason to fling your book aside because it “just isn’t going anywhere.”

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review - Trespass by Rose Tremain


Two things drew me to Rose Tremain’s latest novel, Trespass. One was the fact that it was set in the Cévennes mountains of the Central Massif (south central France, a region I know well), and the second is that it was described as being “very dark.” I love France and have spent many happy years there, and I love well-written “dark” books.

Trespass revolves around five middle aged characters: two French siblings, Audrun and Aramon, who share a secret past, an English garden designer and writer, Veronica, and her lover, a mediocre watercolorist, Kitty, as well as Veronica’s brother, Anthony Verey, a London antiques dealer in his middle sixties, who has come to France to try to salvage what’s left of his life. While Audrun and Aramon are more or less estranged, Veronica and Anthony have remained very close.

Aramon Lunel is an alcoholic (he has an over-fondness for pastis, “the” drink of the South of France), who is in poor health. His deceased father, Serge, left him a wonderful stone mas, the Mas Lunel, which Aramon hopes to sell to Anthony for 475,000 euros. The only problem is the fact that Audrun, who was left the surrounding woodland, has built a squalid modern bungalow on the boundary that separates her land from Aramon’s, thus destroying the otherwise perfect view and destroying one of Anthony’s requirements for any property he might buy – aesthetic beauty (solitude is the other requirement). Audrun, who steadfastly refuses to rebuild deeper in the forest, out of sight of the Mas Lunel, alienates Anthony, Aramon, and all the local estate agents, who feel they cannot sell the Mas Lunel until the dispute between brother and sister is settled. In the meantime, Anthony’s continued presence in Veronica’s and Kitty’s home is driving a wedge between the two women as Veronica chooses, with increasing frequency, to take Anthony’s side over Kitty’s in any dispute.

Although the Mas Lunel can definitely be restored to its former idyllic beauty, Aramon has not kept it up. Tremain writes, "...thousands of Cévenol people had seemed to forget their role as caretakers of the land. Diseases came to the trees. The vine terraces crumbled. The rivers silted up. And nobody seemed to notice or care." No, Aramon doesn’t care. He only cares about getting out. He has no love for the Mas Lunel or the land around it.

Audrun, however, living in her shabby bungalow, can’t bear to leave the land she loves despite the fact that the Mas Lunel holds many bitter memories for her. In fact, possessing the mas is the one thing that keeps Audrun going from day-to-day.

As would be expected, all of the main characters in Trespass have either trespassed on the rights of others or are planning to do so. Kitty, who realizes that the deep bond between Anthony and Veronica was formed long before she and Veronica even met struggles with the once carefree relationship she and her lover shared, a relationship that is now facing destruction from outside forces. "Doesn’t every love need to create for itself its own protected space? And if so, why don’t lovers understand better the damage trespass can do?"

Unlike Anthony and Veronica, Audrun and Aramon do not have the same kind of close bond. Though they both adored their mother, Bernadette, their father was abusive, and he encouraged Aramon to follow his example. Both brother and sister struggle to come to terms with their poisoned past, though they struggle in different ways.

Tremain does a good job of conjuring up the menace that lingers in the Cévenol no matter how bright the sun or how warm the temperature. I can’t really say I felt like I was in those forbidding and dangerous hills, but maybe that’s "just me." I can say that from the very first page, which couldn’t fail to pull any reader in, I knew that these characters were heading toward something terrible, though I wasn’t sure what. Tremain, thankfully, manages to sustain the suspense until the very last page, and even after we find out who the "bad guy" is and what he or she’s done, we don’t know if he or she will get away with it. The book reminded me a little of the works of Thomas Hardy – characters at the mercy of fate, people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and strangely, Trespass, which was longlisted for 2010’s Man Booker Prize, reminds me a little of an earlier Man Booker winner, John Banville’s The Sea, though the setting and subject matter are entirely different.

Along the way, Tremain gives us a history lesson of the Cévennes. She tells us about the decline of the once thriving silk industry, the poor working conditions Audrun once endured in the underwear factory in Ruasse, the way the Cévenol people never hoped for more than what they already had. But it’s the sense of isolation, of ever-present menace that really captures the spirit of the area and adds to the darkness of this book. The woods of holm oak and beech and chestnut and pine are lovely, but Tremain never lets us forget that its loveliness is fraught with danger.

While I could feel sympathy for some of the characters in Trespass, I really didn’t like any of them, other than Mélodie, a little girl we meet in the first chapter and then don’t see again for about two hundred pages or so. I’m not surprised. They aren’t, by any means, likable people. They seem either blind to their faults or dismissive of them. But they did seem real. They were one hundred percent believable and so is their story.

The only quibble I have with this book is a maddening habit of Tremain’s to write "and now he, Anthony" or "now that she, Kitty...." For god’s sake, Ms. Tremain, we know who you’re talking about. The reference is distracting. Even though grammatically correct, this habit really got on my nerves and it reminded me of something a lesser writer would do, not someone of Tremain’s status.

Trespass isn’t my favorite Rose Tremain book, by any stretch. I don’t think it can hold a candle to the magnificent Music and Silence, which I read years ago and still think about often, but other than the above grammatical quibble, I really can’t point to any particular fault, though something holds it back from greatness.

In the end, Trespass is an engrossing and unsettling story, and by Tremain’s standards, it’s a dark one. Her characters are in search of redemption from their trespasses, and some of them are more active about pursuing that redemption than others. Is it worth it? Well, Tremain wisely leaves that for her readers to decide.

4.5/5

Recommended: Yes, to readers looking for a dark and atmospheric book. This isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a suspenseful and engrossing story, and one that’s extremely well crafted. And if you love books set in France, the Cévennes hills setting of Trespass will be a bonus.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Book Review - The Classics - The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton


The Age of Innocence is the book Edith Wharton wrote in honor of her great friend, Henry James. Set in New York City's sumptuous “Golden Age” of the 1870s, The Age of Innocence is the story of Newland Archer, his fiancée, May Welland, and the rather mysterious Countess Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May's. It's also a story of the conventions of “Old New York” and how the customs and traditions of society are changing and what happens when the “new” world begins to encroach upon the “old.”

Although its lovers are frustrated at every turn, The Age of Innocence is, without a doubt, Wharton's most romantic novel. The first half of the novel, especially, despite its heavy romanticism, contains much subtle humor, for even as Wharton contrasts, she parodies the society in which she, herself, grew up. The opening chapters are filled with subtle wit, and some of the secondary characters are more like caricatures, chiefly, Mrs. Manson Mingott:

The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

Wharton masterfully begins setting up the contrast between “old” and “new” on the very first page when Newland Archer becomes peeved that Ellen Olenska is allowed to occupy the same box at the opera as May. May is, after all, a woman of impeccable reputation, while Ellen Olenska has committed the unpardonable error of leaving her husband, a Polish count, and running away with his secretary.

Newland Archer is, of course, a man fixated with “taste” and “the proper thing to do.” The importance of “doing the proper thing” and of maintaining one's proper place in society is one of the main themes of this novel. Throughout the entire book, Wharton makes contrasts: the old brownstones are contrasted against the new, cream colored residences; Ellen's dark hair and vivid clothing is contrasted against May's fair complexion and blonde innocence; homes are judged “proper” or not by whether the drawing room is on the same floor as the main bedroom. The “Grande Dames” of society, principally Mrs. Mingott and Mrs. Beaufort, are described as though they never age in order to confer some aspect of immortality on them because they always “do what's right.”

The Age of Innocence is, however, far more than a book about what's proper and what's not. The characters, especially the three principals, Newland Archer, May Welland, and Ellen Olenska, are highly complex people. There really is very little in this book that is clear-cut, despite the wishes of its characters for life to be so.

The arrival of Ellen Olenska triggers some deep soul searching in Newland Archer as he begins, for the first time, to question the very propriety of his engagement to May. As he does, we also learn that “innocence” is, perhaps, only a facade and that “high” society can be the most corrupt society of all.

As Newland Archer becomes acutely aware of the many levels and stratifications in New York society, so do we, and Newland, with his checkered past, begins to wonder just where he, himself, properly fits in. Against his wishes, Newland Archer finds himself falling in love with Ellen Olenska, and falling in love for, what Newland Archer considers, are all the wrong reasons. In a desperate attempt to protect both himself and May, Newland, in his capacity as a lawyer, encourages Ellen not to divorce her European husband and tries to rush his marriage to May.

One of the most memorable scenes, and a turning point in the book, occurs when Newland Archer takes a walk down to the oceanfront and makes the decision to let fate, rather than his conscious actions decide the course of his life.

Another important turning point, and one that shows us the novel's theme in dialogue, occurs when Newland says to Ellen:

I want to get away with you into a world where words and categories don't exist, Where we shall be simply two human beings who love each other, who are the whole of life to each other, and nothing else on earth will matter.

Ellen replies:

Oh, my dear, where is that country? Have you ever been there? I know so many who've tried to find it, and believe me, they all got out by mistake at wayside stations: at places like Boulogne, or Pisa, or Monte Carlo and it wasn't at all different from the old world they'd left, but only rather smaller and dingier and more promiscuous.

Clearly, Ellen is the more realistic of the two, though Newland has also come to question the value of “romance” in his life.

The Age of Innocence is exquisitely detailed with lavish descriptions of the homes, the meals, the clothes, the flowers, the customs. I think this book is rather unusual in that many of the scenes are written as tableaux, i.e., described in such vivid and precise detail one might almost think Wharton were describing a beautiful oil painting. Several of the scenes in which Newland sees Ellen are written in the manner of tableaux, and Martin Scorsese, in his gorgeous film adaptation, has actually utilized real oil paintings in the filming of some of the scenes.

The book, which won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, is told from the perspective of two people: Wharton, as she observes and satirizes the society in which she, herself, grew up, and Newland Archer, as he slowly comes to realize its foibles.

If you’ve only read Ethan Frome, Wharton’s more popular book, you might be shocked at how different The Age of Innocence is, or you might feel Wharton simply recycled the plot of Ethan Frome into The Age of Innocence, and there are similarities. To begin with, both books revolve around men who fall in love with the cousin of their wife. But Ethan Frome was hen-pecked and far weaker than Newland Archer. He was a child-in-the-guise-of-an-adult, who falls in love with a child, and both of them inhabit a child’s world. And May is no Zeena. Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, in contrast to Ethan Frome and Mattie Silver, are both adults. They are flawed adults, to be sure, but adults nonetheless. While we can observe the story of Ethan, Zeena, and Mattie, we can truly identify with Newland, May, and Ellen. For that reason, I greatly prefer this novel.

For me, The Age of Innocence is one of the most beautiful, most subtle, and saddest books I've ever read. While I won't tell you how it all works out, it really doesn't spoil anything to say that by the book's end, society and its many rules and conventions can't be blamed for anything at all. By the book's end, no one has anyone to blame for anything but himself.

5/5

Recommended: Yes. This is one of the great classics of American literature and showcases the death of “old” New York society and class distinction perfectly.

Note: Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862 into a family so wealthy it actually inspired the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” She married an equally wealthy sportsman, Edward Wharton, but despite their similar background and shared passion for travel, the marriage simply didn't work. Henry James was Wharton's close friend, and the two of them were often in the company of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Andre Gide, Sinclair Lewis, Jean Cocteau, and Jack London. After her divorce in 1913, Wharton moved to France where she was awarded the French Legion of Honor for her humanitarian efforts during the war. She wrote in bed every morning of her life. She died in 1937 and is buried in the American Cemetery at Versailles.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Contests - Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program's Screenwriters Lab

A few entries back I suggested that if a screenwriter were to enter only one screenwriting contest/fellowship, it should be the Nicholl. And that advice still stands, of course. But what if a screenwriter wants to enter more than one contest/fellowship? What other ones are recommended – and good?

Well, number two on my list is Robert Redford’s Feature Film Program’s Screenwriters Lab, which, for would be screenwriters, represents the jewel in the crown of the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. This is not a fellowship per se, but it might as well be.

Redford, who loved his role as the Sundance Kid and didn’t mind playing second fiddle to Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy, founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, with the following mission: “discovery and development of independent artists and audiences. Through its programs, the Institute seeks to discover, support, and inspire independent film and theatre artists from the United States and around the world, and to introduce audiences to their new work.”

Entry fees in the Screenwriters Lab are modest ($30 last time I checked) and there are twelve slots available for the bi-annual Lab. If you win one, you’ll get a chance to work with Redford, himself, and a host of other screenwriting and film notables. “Graduates” of the Sundance Screenwriters Lab include Darren Aronfsky, who worked on “Requiem for a Dream” during his time at the lab. That’s the good news: Sundance’s Screenwriters Lab provides its winners with real hands-on practice and it surrounds you with working writers, actors, and directors. In between the two Screenwriters Labs, good writers, who produce good screenplays, really do have a shot at seeing their work produced during the Directors Lab, and who doesn’t want to see his or her work produced? And, if Sundance really, really likes what you’ve written, they’ll continue to provide you with support after your stint in the lab is finished. This could include the arrangement of financing, production, and distribution of your movie.

The only downside to Sundance is that it lacks the Nicholl’s $30,000 is prize money and it’s far more condensed than the Nicholl, but hey, I wouldn’t refuse it. Would you?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book Review - The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore


I loved Helen Dunmore’s book, The Siege, which took place during the 900-day siege of Leningrad and revolved around the Levin family – twenty-two year old Anna and her father, a dissident poet, Anna’s young brother, Kolya, Marina, an actress, and a young medical student named Andrei. In fact, I wrote a short story entitled “Leningrad, 1941” as homage to Dunmore and her book (and I hope Dunmore, if she ever sees it, sees it as the homage it’s meant to be). (I love all of Helen Dunmore’s books, by the way.)

Dunmore’s latest book, The Betrayal, is a follow-up to The Siege.

The Betrayal takes place in Leningrad in 1952. Anna, now a nursery school teacher, and Andrei, now a pediatrician, are a happily married couple in their thirties and they’re trying to conceive a much wanted child. Kolya has grown from a sweet six-year-old to a rebellious teenager of sixteen, but he’s a good kid at heart and his rebelliousness is “just normal” for any boy his age.

In The Betrayal, as in The Siege, the city of Leningrad is as much a character as Anna, Andrei, and Kolya. Although their lives are relatively peaceful, the palpable paranoia that characterized the last days of Stalin’s reign dictates almost every move that the characters in this book make. Anna and Andrei go dutifully about their jobs and keep planning for the family they want so much to have. They dream of a new generation who will “only know about hunger from books.” But this quiet domestic dream is interrupted by the harsh reality that books have been banned in Leningrad and writers, artists, and musicians have either fled or been imprisoned or worse. Anna and Kolya bury their father’s samizdat poetry in their dacha’s compost heap, hoping for the day when they can once again read poetry freely.

So, this is life in Stalin’s “cheerful” Leningrad in 1952 – watch your step, do what’s dictated, and you might get to live peacefully, albeit with much intellectual and artistic paucity. On the other hand, you might be arrested and shot, or sent to the gulag, without any warning, on trumped up charges, at the whim of a state official. People fear displeasing one another, they fear their neighbors, they fear standing out, of not being “anonymous or average” enough. Whether they consciously acknowledge it or not, everyone in Leningrad is painfully aware that “anybody can go out of favor in the blink of an eye.” And so it is that one day, that something happens to turn the Andrei’s life, and by extension, Anna’s, around.

Dunmore begins the suspense with the very first sentence: “It's a fresh June morning, with a trace of humidity, but Russov is sweating.” And Russov has several good reasons to sweat, reasons that have nothing at all to do with the weather.

The son of a senior official in the Ministry of State Security, Volkov, has fallen seriously ill, and Russov, who is understandably afraid of being the one to deliver the dire diagnosis, turns the case over to Andrei, who is well known for his compassionate and understanding bedside manner. Andrei is, well, stuck. If Volkov’s son, Gorya, dies, then Andrei will get the blame – no matter what could or what could not – have been done – and Andrei knows it. As his patient’s condition worsens, Andrei thinks: “The blob of sun on the corridor wall wavers. The day shines before him, impossibly ordinary and beautiful. This must be how the dead think of life.” For Volkov is indeed Andrei’s enemy as well as a murderer, a torturer, and an interrogator. But he is also the father of Andrei’s sick patient and Andrei can’t help feeling ambivalent towards him. It is because of Andrei’s sympathy for Volkov as a father that he develops a close relationship with the man, as well as with the young patient, a relationship that is ripe for betrayals of several kinds. All the while Andrei is warning himself “Don’t take risks. Don’t stand out.” Sometimes, however, it’s impossible not to stand out.

As Dunmore builds the suspense, the reader begins to worry about two things: (1) What will happen to Gorya, and how will Volkov take the news? (2) What will happen to Andrei and Anna and Kolya if Gorya’s outcome isn’t what Volkov expects? The pacing of The Betrayal, especially in the first half, is superb. I didn’t want to put the book down, yet at the same time, I didn’t want it to end. As Andrei’s life and career spiral into a Kafkaesque nightmare, one can’t help but think of Stalin’s “Doctor’s Plot,” in which prominent doctors were arrested and accused of conspiring to murder Party leaders. Despite the fact that the “Doctor’s Plot” was a pure fabrication on the government’s part, many doctors were sent to labor camps and subsequently executed. I kept worrying and wondering if Andrei would be one, and if he was, what would then happen to Anna and Kolya?

The Betrayal is a much more strongly plot driven novel than was The Siege. However, Dumore’s plot would not have worked had she not fleshed out her characters so wonderfully. Andrei and Anna and the others felt real to me. I cared about them. I thought about them, even during those times when I wasn’t reading the book.

The Betrayal is also highly atmospheric. The paranoia of Stalin’s regime, the growing menace surrounding Andrei at work, the domestic bliss, the nostalgia Anna and Kolya feel when burying their father’s poetry all come vividly alive. This didn’t surprise me. Dunmore is a wonderful poet as well as a wonderful novelist and her prose, as always, is luminous, crystalline, and at times, sensuous. And I loved Dumore’s images. She’s such a highly evocative author. We can see, in our mind’s eye, just what she wants us to see. Make no mistake, Dunmore is a writer with power, but it’s a quiet sort of power, one that fuses the extraordinary with the ordinary in the best possible way.

If I have any quibble with this beautifully written novel, it’s that Dunmore makes it too easy to sort her characters into the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” People are either morally black or morally white. Andrei, until he comes into contact with Gorya and Volkov, is the very model of the compassionate, ethical doctor. Anna is warm and hardworking and truly loves the children she teaches. And it’s not a spoiler to tell you that even the sullen Kolya comes around eventually. (You know he will anyway.)

Another minor quibble I had was that most of the characters were artists, yet art, itself, plays no part in the book’s plot. Anna draws, Anna and Kolya’s father was a poet, his friend, Marina (if you read The Siege, you’ll know her) was an actress, Kolya plays the piano, Julia (a minor character in The Betrayal) is a dancer, and her husband a filmmaker. Personally, I thought the book would have had a deeper, more lasting meaning had Dunmore delved into why art is important and the fact that art outlives us all, and being an artist herself, I was surprised when she didn’t. The fact that she didn’t, however, didn’t ruin the book for me in any way.

If you’re looking for a historical novel, The Betrayal, which was longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize, is going to seem pretty lightweight. This is a book about good, ordinary, everyday people, who get caught up in terrible, extraordinary circumstances, but it’s not One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and it doesn’t pretend to be. This book lacks the overall grimness of that masterpiece and Dunmore focuses more on home and family life. However, if you’re looking for a lovely book, a book peopled with characters you can really become involved with, a book with a heart-revving plot, and a book whose story is beautifully and evocatively told, then The Betrayal, and Dunmore, certainly won’t let you down.

4.5/5

Recommended: Highly, to readers of literary fiction, who love beautiful prose and highly atmospheric novels as well as a wonderful story.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Writing Life - Learning to Live With Rejection

The thing writers worry about most is rejection, and if you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to have to learn how to deal with rejection because rejection is a normal part of any writer’s life.

I think it helps writers to deal with rejection when they know why their work was rejected. However, more often than not, rejection is handed out to writers coldly, usually in a standard form letter.

You might love your work, your family might love your work, and all your friends might love your work. That doesn’t mean agents and editors are going to love your work as well. Your family and friends love you, or at least they like you very much. When they compliment your work, they’re seeing, not only your work, but you as well. Most, if not all of them are going to have problems being objective about what you’ve written, especially when what you’ve written means so very much to you.

Agents and editors, however, don’t know you. They aren’t, for the most part, uncaring people, but they are looking at your work from a different angle – that of marketability. The job of agents and editors is to sell your work. Why should they bother with your work if they don’t believe they can sell it? For them, that would be an exercise in futility.

While you might love something you’ve written, if you’re trying to sell your work, you should have developed enough objectivity to tell if it’s truly good yourself. If you haven’t, you might not be ready to sell. Even if you have written something spectacular, it might still be rejected, and it might be rejected with little to no feedback from an agent or editor. So, what are the most common reasons that agents and editors reject manuscripts?

One of the biggest is that your work, while well written, just didn’t resonate with that particular editor. This is subjective, but it’s something you’ll run into all the time and it’s also something you can’t control. All any writer can do is get used to it and move on.

Even if your manuscript resonated with an editor, it still might be rejected. Why? For several reasons, including, but not limited to:

The fact that the editor recently acquired something similar to yours or that the publishing house has already agreed to publish a book similar to yours. Let’s say I’m a new author with a terrific manuscript about the relationship between the black housekeepers/nannies of the Deep South of the 1960s and the women they work for. And let’s say I submit my manuscript to Amy Eichorn Books. Well, Kathryn Stockett already did that with The Help. No matter how well my fictional manuscript might be written, it’s not going to be published. Not by Amy Eichorn Books and most likely not by any other publisher. It’s been done. Someone beat me to the punch. Or, let’s say I’ve written a fictionalization of the true story of the murder trial of one of the Ward brothers in upstate New York. This isn’t going to be published, either. Had I written a book like that, Jon Clinch would have already beaten me to the punch with his magnificent Kings of the Earth.

Your idea might be one that’s overpublished at the moment as well. The market might be saturated, at least for the time being. The spate of teenage vampire books is one case in point. While popular, the world simply doesn’t need another “Twilight” series or even another “Harry Potter.” Not yet. (Yes, I know Harry was a wizard, not a vampire.)

An editor might love your manuscript and really want to acquire it, but you might have simply had the misfortune of submitting it at the wrong time. Right now, publishers are cutting back on their lists, so only the most outstanding or most marketable of new writers are going to have manuscripts accepted for publication. A little luck really does go a long way.

If you haven’t done your homework thoroughly, you might be querying the wrong agent or editor. An editor whose list is composed of genre romances isn’t going to be interested in acquiring your thriller. And an editor who loves literary novels isn’t going to want to read your horror manuscript no matter how well it’s written. There’s really no excuse for querying the wrong agent or editor. Agents and editors have their specialties listed in books like Writers Market. Get a copy. Use it. Query the right people.

And speaking of queries, if your query is unprofessional (and you might be surprised at how many are) or if you don’t meet the query guidelines, you’re doomed before you even begin. Make sure your query is as professional as possible and send the agent or editor only what he or she wants. For example, some agents and editors want to see a synopsis, others want to see a synopsis and an outline, while others want a synopsis and the first three chapters, etc. Everyone wants something a little different, so make sure you fulfill those different needs.

If you’re trying to sell a non-fiction book proposal or manuscript, and you don’t have the proper credentials to write the book you have in mind, know that you will definitely be turned down. If you want to write a book on copywriting, for instance, but you’ve never worked as a copywriter, you’re probably not going to get a book deal. If you want to write a book on healthy eating, but lack knowledge of nutrition and have no cooking skills, then you’d better try another subject, instead, one in which you have more knowledge and experience.

For most people, there comes a point at which they have to stop sending a piece of work out and give up completely, though this time will vary for every writer. If you know you’ve written something very good and you’ve put a lot of time and effort into it (and you should put a lot of effort into everything you write), then don’t give up too easily. Remember that J.K. Rowling received more than two hundred rejections slips before the Harry Potter books were published. Kathryn Stockett freely admits that it took her years to get an agent to represent The Help, then it took even more years for that agent to sell the book. But look what happened when it was finally sold. It’s been on the bestseller list since its publication and shows no signs of slowing down.

You do need to examine your rejection letters for patterns so you can learn what’s working with the manuscript and what’s not. Don’t get discouraged. This will help you to improve your writing and learn about publishing market demands.

Ultimately, though, some manuscripts, even some very good manuscripts, will have to be abandoned. Sometimes there’s just no market for the work. I encountered this with my first manuscript, which was a comedy crime caper. Unless one already has a “big name” in the publishing industry, no one currently wants a comedy crime caper. (Stephen King could publish one, of course.) This was okay with me. I loved writing the book and it was a terrific learning experience for me. I wouldn’t change a thing. And be aware that most authors don’t sell their first manuscript. Most sell their second or even their third. Some have to write many more before that first wonderful sale happens, but when it does, all the work will have been worth it.

It’s extremely important to make sure you submit only your finest, most polished work to an agent or editor. Don’t count on them sending the manuscript back to you with suggestions to make it better and more marketable. Usually, you only get one shot with any particular agent or editor, so make sure you take your best aim. If an agent or editor says “no” to your full manuscript – not your query or partial, but your full manuscript – then, without an invitation to resubmit (and this will almost never happen), you’ve pretty much killed your chances with that particular person on that particular project. Sending a revision is only going to result in another rejection and will probably make the agent or editor angry with you as well and far less open to anything new you might submit in the future.

Rejection phrases can be very generic. One of the most common complaints I hear from beginning authors is that they can’t understand why their manuscript was rejected. Here are some of the most common rejection phrases used in publishing and what they usually mean.

“Your manuscript doesn’t fit our needs at this time.” This is a tough one to interpret because it’s rather all-purpose and can really mean anything the editor wants it to mean. It could mean that your writing just wasn’t up to snuff and professional enough. It might mean that the editor just doesn’t think the manuscript possesses any marketability. Or it could mean the editor simply didn’t like it. It’s a more or less stock phrase that you really shouldn’t bother trying to figure out. Just accept it and move on.

“Your manuscript doesn’t have the necessary market appeal.” This one means exactly what it says. They might like your manuscript very much, but it might be too “different” for them, i.e., I would imagine a lot of publishers passed on Geek Love, but it’s extremely well written, so it eventually found a home. Conversely, your manuscript might be too generic and the editor might be afraid it will fail to stand out from the crowd.

“I don’t like the writing style.” Some agents and editors will just tell you that while they may like your story well enough, they don’t like your writing style, so don’t think they could place your book/don’t think it would sell well. If your writing style is fine, it might just be the particular agent or editor’s personal taste and there’s nothing you can do about personal taste, however, if three or more people tell you they don’t like your writing style, you’ve probably got some work to do to perfect it. You do need sophistication and a unique voice.

“I just couldn’t get excited about your story.” This is usually a bad one. It almost always means you story is weak and not emotionally engaging, your characters are weak, and you have little or no compelling conflict. The agent or editor failed to be emotionally engaged and couldn’t find any reason to keep turning pages. Don’t take this personally, but take it seriously. Figure out what’s wrong and fix it.

“Your material isn’t fresh enough.” This, too, means exactly what it says. Your story, characters, or plot line is cliché and just not different and compelling enough for publication. It’s a story we’ve all heard many times before, told in the same way it’s been told before.

Rejection is difficult for any of us, but you can learn to live with it and you can learn to make it work for you rather than against you. In fact, if you want to be a writer, making rejection work for you is something you’re going to have to do.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review - Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


I read Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Booker winning Wolf Hall a year ago, but though I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to write a review that does it justice. So, I’ll just write the best one I can with the proviso that it won’t come close to being deserving of this wonderful book, which is the best book of the decade for me.

Prior to reading Wolf Hall, I pretty much steered clear of historical fiction despite the fact that I do like history. Far too many books of historical fiction were made up of fluffy bed-hopping, heaving bosoms, and girlish giggles. What serious reader wants that, even in a light read? I sure don’t.

But Wolf Hall was written by Hilary Mantel, I told myself. Hilary Mantel doesn’t write fluff. Hilary Mantel is an accomplished, versatile writer. She’s bound to give us something stellar. So, I bought Wolf Hall and dived in. Not only was I not disappointed, the book exceeded all my high expectations by leaps and bounds. Yes, it’s concerned with Henry’s desire to divorce and remarry in order to obtain a male heir, but it’s far more concerned with power and how one gains, uses, and loses that power than it is with bed-hopping and heaving bosoms. Thank goodness.

Wolf Hall, for those who don’t know, is set in 16th century Tudor England at the court of King Henry VIII at the moment when Henry has made up his mind to rid himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, hoping the latter will provide him with the male heir the first failed to deliver. Although we’re surrounded by Henry, Anne, Anne’s sister, Mary, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and even Jane Seymour, it’s Thomas Cromwell who takes center stage.

We first meet Cromwell as a young boy, lying bruised and bleeding on the cobblestones, the result of a severe beating from his father, the drunken Putney blacksmith, Walter Cromwell. Having had enough, Thomas runs away.

The next time we meet him, much has happened and life has definitely changed. Thomas Cromwell is now a very cosmopolitan lawyer in the service of Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry’s chief advisor. Mantel doesn’t tell us much about the years in between Cromwell’s last beating as a lad and his rise to power, but we do know he spent time as a mercenary in France, studied with Florentine bankers, Dutch clothiers, memorized the Bible, learned to speak half a dozen languages, and became a lawyer. All that is quite an accomplishment for a boy who doesn’t even know his own birthday, other than it was sometime in 1485.

But perhaps Thomas Cromwell’s greatest ability is his ability to make even kings laugh. Mantel writes:

With animals, women and timid litigants, his manner is gentle and easy; but he makes your creditors weep. He can converse with you about the Caesars or get you Venetian glassware at a very reasonable rate. Nobody can outtalk him, if he wants to talk.

The ability to make even kings laugh serves Cromwell quite well in Henry’s court, for as most know, Cardinal Wolsey, whom we first encounter at the peak of his powers as an arrogant, preening, peacock of a man, chose his side very badly when he failed to take Anne Boleyn as a serious contender for Catherine’s place at Henry’s side.

And when Wolsey goes down, it’s Cromwell who rises even higher.

If you’ve ever seen Robert Bolt’s marvelous play, A Man for All Seasons, you’ll know how Thomas Cromwell is usually portrayed – as a bully and as a harsh master, one who brooks no dissension from anyone. But Hilary Mantel, I think, with Wolf Hall, has changed the way the world will forever view Thomas Cromwell.

In her book, Cromwell is both humane and generous. He genuinely loves his wife, Liz, and their children. He loves his home at Austin Friars, a home teeming with in-laws and wards and nieces and nephews and abandoned wives. At Austin Friars, children are never spanked nor are servants ever whipped. However, while brokering "deals" for Henry, Cromwell is shrewd enough to set his sites on the far flung future, on a new England in which kindness, tolerance, and education take primary importance, and Cromwell has decided that he, himself, will be the author of this “thoroughly modern England.”

Even Thomas More admires Cromwell, and Cromwell is humble enough to be flattered by More’s words:

...lock Thomas Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money....

And here lies the crux of the problem for some readers. Those readers who come to Wolf Hall with a profound love and reverence for Thomas More will probably find Mantel’s portrayal of “the man for all seasons” undeservedly harsh, the way others have found Bolt’s portrayal of Cromwell.

Mantel’s More is a man who is both petty and mean in spirit, word, and deed. He not only tortures those beneath him, he gloats about doing so and seemingly, he enjoys doing it. While Austin Friars is bursting at the seams with love and good humor, More’s home at Chelsea is a place where the saint insists on being loved and indulged, while the women, including his own wife, Alice, are snubbed and taunted. When Cromwell dines with More in Chelsea, the dinner conversation is in Latin, a language Alice does not understand, and More wastes no time in taking this opportunity to make fun of her as the following passage shows:

“Eat, eat,” says More. “All except Alice, who will burst out of her corset.”

At her name she turns her head. “That expression of painful surprise is not native to her,” More says. “It is produced by scraping back her hair and driving in great ivory pins, to the peril of her skull. She believes her forehead is too low. It is, of course. Alice, Alice,” he says, “remind me why I married you.”

“To keep house, Father,” Meg says in a low voice.

“Yes, yes,” More says. “A glance at Alice frees me from stain of concupiscence.”


In truth, of course, Cromwell was probably not as bad as Bolt portrayed him nor as good as Mantel does. Conversely, More was probably not the saint Bolt would have us believe he was, but he was probably not as cruel and petty as Mantel paints him. Historical truth usually lies somewhere near the middle, and there’s no reason to think it’s any different in the case of Cromwell and More, though readers who revere More should be aware of Mantel’s treatment of him going in. Personally, I wasn’t bothered by it. Mantel brings Cromwell to life so convincingly that my sympathies, while reading Wolf Hall, at least, couldn’t lie anywhere but with the book’s hero. In fact, for me, part of the magic of Wolf Hall lies in Mantel’s extraordinary ability to transform a man, described by Swineburne as “shapeless, spiritless, bodiless, soulless, senseless, helpless, worthless rubbish” into a humane, forward thinking, and supremely modern man. In fact, Mantel’s Cromwell often takes on nearly Shakespearian proportions in both his self-awareness and his self-doubt.

But have no doubt, Thomas Cromwell, even in Hilary Mantel’s sympathetic hands, does have an agenda all his own. He knows, perhaps better than anyone else, that Henry would happily remain a Catholic ‘till death if only the Church would annul his marriage to Catherine and permit him to marry Anne Boleyn. It’s only Pope Clement’s determination not to let that happen that fuels Henry’s fight with his faith. And Cromwell is banking on Clement remaining true to his convictions, for it is only through the Reformation, and Henry’s desire for Anne, that Cromwell can gain the ground he desires and get even richer in the doing.

The bulk of Wolf Hall takes place during the years between 1525 to 1533. Though this is only eight years, the novel is bursting at the seams with characters. Mantel does provide a family tree and a cast of characters (five pages long) in the front of the book, but non-Anglophiles may still have a problem keeping everything in the book straight, though this will be their fault, not Mantel’s. Many of the characters are named “Thomas,” and Mantel, who wants to keep her reader in the mind of her narrator, often uses “he,” “him,” or “his” rather than a proper name. I know some readers who found this confusing. I never did, and it didn’t bother me one bit, though of course, you may be different.

Also, unlike most historical novels, Wolf Hall is written in the present tense. I thoroughly enjoyed this choice and found myself figuratively thrust right into the thick of things at Henry’s court – and in Cromwell’s thought processes. The present tense, of course, implies no knowledge on Mantel’s part of the events that will occur in the future. Thus, Mantel is free to speculate on what these events might entail. I thought this was a brilliant choice. It caused even the book’s minor characters – Elizabeth, Mary and Jane Seymour, and Cromwell’s extended family – to come vibrantly alive.

Characterization is something at which Mantel has always excelled. We get to know Thomas Cromwell, not only from his own point of view, but from the point of view of many other of the book’s characters. We see the gentler side of him at home, we see him bantering with ambassadors, we see him worrying about his wife and daughters. We even see him making a pet out of a rough-coated cat with golden eyes.

Anne Boleyn, who Mantel describes as “a cold, slick brain at work behind her hungry black eyes” is another character rendered in excruciating detail, none of it very flattering. With the king’s friends, Cromwell notes that:

Anne is brittle in their company, and as ruthless with their compliments as a housewife snapping the necks of larks for the table. If her precise smile fades for a moment, they all lean forward, anxious to know how to please her. A bigger set of fools you would go far to seek.

The narrative of Wolf Hall is not a strictly linear narrative, and much of Cromwell’s past is told in flashbacks. In the hands of a less experienced writer, these flashbacks would get tiresome, but Mantel handles them expertly, and they remain as fresh and vital as the book’s present day story, adding to the novel’s overall dreamlike and other-worldly atmosphere.

And Mantel, never one to skimp on details, certainly doesn’t skimp on them in Wolf Hall. The book is replete with the sound of seagulls, the cries of children trying to sell inexpensive trinkets, the smell of freshly baked bread, the feel of a lop-eared rabbit’s snowy fur.

Of course, one of the biggest hurdles Mantel had to overcome in writing Wolf Hall was the fact that we all know how this drama is going to spin itself out. We know the ending going in. In the end, all this foreknowledge doesn’t matter. Wolf Hall remains a page-turner from beginning to end, and when we reach the end, we feel satisfied, though Mantel has pretty much left things “up in the air.” It’s no spoiler to say that the last page of the book deals with Cromwell’s plans to visit Wolf Hall, home of the Seymour clan.

This could have backfired on Mantel. It could have left her novel with a flat sense of anticlimax. Instead, it causes the reader to reflect on how rapidly the tides of fortune can change, how fickle life and fate can be. It pulls at the heart. It made me want to spend even more time with Cromwell, with Jane Seymour, even with Henry.

In one final showdown prior to his execution, Cromwell says to More:

You call history to your aid, but what is history to you? It is a mirror that flatters Thomas More. But I have another mirror. I hold it up and it shows a vain and dangerous man, and when I turn it about it shows a killer, for you will drag down with you God knows how many, who will only have the suffering, and not your martyr’s gratification. You are not a simple soul, so don’t try to make this simple.

Wolf Hall is not a simple book, and Mantel never tries to make it simple. She never underestimates her readers’ intelligence. At times, the book can be difficult and demanding and dark, but it is one of the most brilliant and rewarding books of the last decade, and Mantel is one of the world’s most brilliant writers. I look forward to the sequel with great anticipation and excitement.

5/5

Recommended: This is a gorgeous book, it’s a book that will forever change the way people remember Thomas Cromwell. It’s recommended for anyone who loves literary novels. This is not your “ordinary” historical novel, but a brilliant and brilliantly realized portrait of the court of King Henry VIII during the last days of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell.

Note: Yes, I know. This review is too long despite that fact that it contains no spoilers. Wolf Hall is just so rich and so rewarding it’s hard to stop writing about it. And no, I did not do the book justice.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Op-Ed - An Alternative to NaNoWriMo

I love the end of October. Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. Nothing about it is scary for me, unless it’s scary in a good way. I love the cider, the bobbing for apples, the carved pumpkins and the pumpkin pie, the costumes, the shocks of corn, the rustling leaves, and so much more. What I dread is the first of November.

November usually brings dreary weather where I live – not cold, but sometimes overcast. People stay indoors more. Some fix steaming cups of hot cocoa topped with big, bobbing marshmallows. Others rent a bunch of DVDs and watch movies. Still others curl up by a blazing fire and read. And reading brings me to the thing I dislike most about the month of November – NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo began in 1999 as a motivational “prop” for a small group of writer friends who were having trouble getting started and staying focused on their writing. Innocent enough. However, over the years, it’s grown. It’s now a registered non-profit organization, with a staff, several sponsors, and even a fundraising gala. Last year, 120,000 would be novelists participated in NaNoWriMo and 21,683 of them “won.”

So, what does a participant have to do to “win” NaNoWriMo? All he or she has to do is complete a novel of 50,000 words or more during the month of November. It doesn’t matter how terrible that novel is. It doesn’t matter if it’s unpublishable. It doesn’t matter if it even makes sense. All that matters is that it’s finished. It sounds like terribly misplaced energy to me.

Now I don’t think NaNoWriMo is all bad. Would be writers and even some published authors have problems setting a writing schedule and sticking to it. Writing is hard, hard work, and some people tend to procrastinate. Other writers get blocked simply because they edit far too much as they write the first draft. NaNoWriMo helps people get over that – if they are disciplined to write every day in November. And, to its credit, NaNoWriMo doesn’t expect the manuscripts finished during its “contest” to be deathless prose or even remotely publishable. They tell participants that if they finish they will have a first draft and can then move on to the only thing that does produce masterpieces of deathless prose: revision. In fact, the NaNoWriMo Website counsels: “Make no mistake, you will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.”

I can buy what NaNoWriMo is really selling. Getting over the procrastination and writers’ blocks and just getting that first draft done. The problem is that so many of NaNoWriMo’s participants just want to blast through that first draft and then forget about the all important revision process. No writer who’s any good thinks he or she is going to get anywhere without revision. And I don’t mean just one revision of the first draft, I mean several revisions. As many as it takes to get the novel as perfect as possible. Because if you’re going to complete a 50,000 word novel (that’s a novella, really) in only thirty days, you are going to be “writing a lot of crap” and a “lot of crap” is definitely not what agents and editors want to see.

Instead of “writing a lot of crap” every day in November, why not take the month to really hone your writing skills, so that when you do produce that first draft, it will be something with real promise?

Do you know all the “rules” of writing a novel? Yes, I’m aware that brilliant books break those rules all the time, but one can’t break the rules and get away with it unless one first knows the rules and can write confidently within their constraints.

Are you really conversant with point-of-view? Think long and hard before you answer this one. Point-of-view can be a very tricky thing. Even people who are sure they have all the different points-of-view down pat sometimes make mistakes. I read a Grand Prize winning short story last year, and in the very first sentence, the author went out of point-of-view. Had I been the judge, I would have disqualified it for that alone. You can be sure agents and editors will, too.

Do you have an outline for your would be novel? I know some authors who say they prefer to just “dive in and see where the characters take them,” but I’m sure those authors never see their finished work on the bestseller lists. I’m not a fan of following a novel outline slavishly, but I am a fan of knowing where you’re going before you set out on the journey.

Why not devote a month to doing nothing but learning about the craft of writing a novel? Writer’s Digest Books offers a wonderful series of instructional books, all written by published authors, on the craft of novel writing. There’s Plot by Ansen Dibell, one of the most successful. There’s Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. (Both are superb.) There’s a book on point-of-view, one on dialogue, one on creating characters, one on theme, one on voice, etc. There's even one titled Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, written by Nancy Kress. (I've noticed that so many NaNoWriMo authors have trouble with the middle sections of their books.) Until you know everything in those books, your own chances of producing a publishable book are slim-to-none, no matter how much imagination you have and how good your story ideas are.

So many times when I’m at a party or a dinner or just a backyard barbecue, people will come up to me and say, “I’ve been thinking of writing a book. What do you think of this idea?” I often ask them just how much they know about the writing process, and invariably, they don’t seem to think knowing about that process is a necessity. It is. Far too many people have the strange idea that writing, unlike music or painting or dance requires no study. They believe that people are “born writers” (no one is, some just have more imagination than others) and that once they set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the words will magically flow. Be assured, they won’t. Do you think Van Gogh learned to paint the first time out? That Prokofiev composed wonderfully with no musical training or that as soon as Baryshnikov donned ballet shoes, he danced like an angel? If you know where to contact Baryshnikov, just ask him how much work he put into perfecting the art of dance. The answer might surprise you.

Grab a copy of The Daily Reader by Fred White. This little book has readings for every day of the year and writing exercises specially designed to help you sharpen your writing skills. Turn to the month of November and do the exercises on a daily basis. I can guarantee you won’t be “writing a lot of crap” and that you’ll be a better writer when you’ve finished than when you began.

It's also very eye-opening to read Al Zuckerman's (top New York agent, who founded Writers House) book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel. You many not be aiming for a blockbuster (though most of the would be writers I know are), but in this book, bestselling author, Ken Follett shows us first and successive drafts of The Man From St. Petersburg and he explains all the changes he made and why he made them. His first draft, as he's quick to admit, is rather vague and really not very good. Every subsequent draft improves his book. Until you can revise like that, and are willing to revise like that, you should put your hopes of publication aside, at least for the time being.

Take the opportunity to acquaint yourself with a new author or authors, or read a few books in a genre you’re not so familiar with. All good writers are voracious readers, yet so many of the people I know who participate in NaNoWriMo say they “don’t have time to read.” These are the same people who ask me at parties and barbecues what I think of their novel ideas. Invariably, I ask them what they like to read because most of the time, we write best what we love to read. When they tell me they “don’t read” because they are “concentrating on their writing,” I know they are doomed before they even start.

I don’t mean to throw cold water on anyone’s efforts, but NaNoWriMo strikes me as being rather self-aggrandizing. It’s a bunch of people patting one another (and I do mean “one another,” if you’d been inclined to write “each other” then get yourself a grammar book post haste) on the back for “writing a lot of crap” during the month of November. To me, that just isn’t a worthwhile achievement, and yes, I’ve written two novels and ghostwritten many more. I’m writing a new novel now. I know how much time and effort and just "plain hard work" one puts into a book.

Rest assured, there is no shortage of good, even spectacular books out “there” to fill the very long lifetime of any serious reader. No voracious reader will ever be able to read all the books he or she wants to read. We’ll all die with a huge TBR stack next to our bed or favorite chair. And NaNoWriMo simply isn’t necessary. Those who feel compelled to write, those to whom a well crafted story, executed in beautiful prose is important, will find the time and have the discipline to write those stories, NaNoWriMo or not.

Yes, I am aware that at least one NaNoWriMo novel made it to publication and even bestsellerdom. Sara Gruen’s lovely Water for Elephants was reportedly written as a NaNoWriMo first draft, but apparently Gruen took NaNoWriMo’s advice about revision and revision and revision very seriously. Rest assured, she is the exception, not the rule.

The last thing the world needs is more sloppily written books. I know I’ve probably wasted my time with this little rant, but as a voracious reader myself, I crave wonderfully written books, books whose execution is as near perfect as possible. Next year, why not at least think of skipping NaNoWriMo and devoting yourself, instead, to the study of the art and craft of novel writing. If you’re going to do it, at least do it right.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Book Review - Room by Emma Donoghue


Ever since its Booker nomination (it made the shortlist), Room by Irish writer Emma Donoghue has set the literary world on fire. Most people who review the book seem to love it. They talk about how riveting and suspenseful the book is and how they felt compelled to finish it in a single reading. I guess I’ll have to be one of the few dissenting voices. I really, really, really disliked Room and yes, I do have specific reasons why.

I can’t imagine anyone not knowing the basic plot of Room, but for those who don’t, the book was inspired by the true story of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman who had been imprisoned in her father’s basement for twenty-four years, during which time he repeatedly assaulted and raped her. She eventually bore him seven children and had one miscarriage. Three of her children, one daughter and two sons had been imprisoned with their mother for the whole of their lives (until rescue).

Room takes its basic plot from the Fritzl case as well as the cases of Jaycee Lee Dugard in California and of Natascha Kampusch and Sabine Dardenne.

Room is narrated by a young boy, Jack, who has just “celebrated” his fifth birthday. Jack has never known a human being other than his mother, who he calls “Ma.” “Ma,” we come to learn, was abducted one night at age nineteen on her way to the school library. For the past seven years she’s been held captive in a garden shed fitted with soundproofed cork, lead-lined walls, and a coded metal security door and raped repeatedly by her captor, a man she calls “Old Nick.” Two years into her abduction, “Ma” gave birth to a son, the five-year-old Jack mentioned above.

We soon learn that “Ma” has tried to make life as normal and as sane as possible for Jack as one can in a room that measures 11x11. She holds “Phys Ed” classes for Jack in the morning and tries to ensure that he gets some exercise. She insists that they keep to strict mealtimes. They do have a TV, and though “Ma” limits Jack’s TV watching just like any good parent would do, it is from TV that Jack learns about the outside world, that he learns the stories that “Ma” entertains him with are true ones. However, despite the fact that Jack has access to television, he really isn’t aware that anything exists outside of “Room.” Even “Old Nick” isn’t “real” to Jack because Jack’s always safe in “Wardrobe” when “Old Nick” comes through “Door.” All Jack really knows about “Old Nick” is that he “brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he's not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats.... I think Ma doesn't like to talk about him in case he gets realer.”

I have to admit, I’ve never been fond of books narrated by children, but Room, for me, was especially odious. “Ma” has created characters out of all the objects in “Room” and Jack refers to them as though they are real, living, breathing persons. There’s “Wardrobe” and “Rug” and “Plant” and “Meltedy Spoon.” One page of this is bad enough, but an entire book? It took a lot of determination for me to finish the thing. Here’s Jack describing a typical day in “Room”:

We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser.... I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that’s nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus.

And "waterfall the milk??????" I'm not impressed.

Regarding his TV watching, Jack says:

I'd love to watch TV all the time, but it rots our brains. Before I came down from Heaven Ma left it on all day long and got turned into a zombie that's like a ghost but walks thump thump. So now she always switches off after one show, then the cells multiply again in the day and we can watch another show after dinner and grow more brains in our sleep.

And here’s Jack talking about some “quiet time” with “Ma”:

I get on Ma’s lap in Rocker with our legs all jumbled up. She’s the wizard transformed into a giant squid and I’m prince JackerJack and I escape in the end. We do tickles and Bouncy Bouncy and jaggedy shadows on Bed Wall.

Well, a paragraph of that here and there might have worked, but a whole half of a book? Not on your life. And this is a kid who can sing along to Eminem and Woody Guthrie music videos. He knows the latest dances. He listens to people speak on TV. His own mother, the only person with whom he converses, speaks normally. He uses words like “rappelling” and “hippopotami” with ease. Heck, he even knows more about the fall of the Berlin Wall than many Germans. So what’s with the almost unintelligible baby talk? I know he’s only five, but other than his horrendous speech, he seems to be a very precocious five. And please. How many rundowns of “Dora the Explorer” or “Spongebob Squarepants” can one reader take without wanting to throw the book across the room?

(From here on this review will contain minor plot spoilers. Please don’t continue reading if plot spoilers will ruin the book for you.)

The story of Room is split into two parts, the first part occurring in “Room” and the second part occurring “Outside” after “Ma” and Jack escape. The escape is, to put it mildly, totally ludicrous. For a kid who doesn’t even believe the outside world exists, to do what Jack did is beyond belief. It’s like Donoghue didn’t know what she wanted her book to be – the claustrophobic story of captivity inside a small room and how it limits the emotional and intellectual growth of a five-year-old or how a five-year-old who’s been imprisoned in an 11x11 room all his life can mature and be a hero. None of us, including Donoghue, can have it both ways.

Once we realize that Jack and “Ma” (we never do learn her name) are being held captive, one would think that Room would take on a sinister, suspenseful atmosphere and leave us wondering what “Old Nick” is going to do next. Instead, it’s painfully boring and slow going and almost totally lacking in suspense. Because Donoghue confines her point of view, at least in the first half of the book, to Jack, the insight we get is painfully mundane, and well, boring. When we finally reach the unbelievable “escape” from “Room,” it all feels forced and shallow and contrived.

Some people have made the remark that Donoghue captures perfectly the voice of a young child. I don’t think she does. I don’t even think she captures perfectly the voice of a young child who’s been imprisoned and cut off from the world for all of his five years of life. However, for the sake of argument, let’s just say that Donoghue does capture a five-year-old’s speech pattern perfectly. How many books written by five-year-olds do you find engrossing and enlightening? My bet is none. Five-year-olds can be cute in small doses and of course we love them and want the best for them, but let’s be truthful, they really aren’t very insightful or interesting for long periods of time, and neither is Jack.

And then, after the totally implausible “escape” from “Room,” Donoghue fails to explore, with deep insight, the ramifications of reentering a world from which one’s been absent for seven years, or in Jack’s case, a world he’s never known. I felt Donoghue glossed over this difficult transition. I felt the second half of the book lacked depth just as the first half did, though in a different way. What does “Ma” feel now that she’s free? Is she going to reunite with her own parents? (Her mother refused to accept “Ma’s” seeming death, while her father needed to do so and even held a funeral for her.) Is she going to introduce them to their grandson and him to them? Being held in captivity for years, then introduced/reintroduced to the outside world is going to be traumatic for anyone, but for some mysterious reason, Donoghue doesn’t want to explore the rich store of human emotions she could have mined. There was a curious disconnect between the intense trauma “Ma” and Jack would have had to suffer and the blitheness with which Donoghue relates their story.

And what of the unnatural bond, truly reminiscent of that in “Psycho,” formed between Jack and “Ma” while in “Room?” Yes, I realize that two people imprisoned together for years are going to form a deep bond, but once those people are freed, especially if they are a twenty-six year old mother and her five-year-old son, then some separation and setting of boundaries is going to be necessary in order to promote mental and emotional health. But Donoghue never explores this facet of “Ma’s” and Jack’s captivity, though clearly, she realized it exists. At one point, Jack says of himself, “Maybe I’m a human, but I’m a me-and-Ma as well.” That outlook might have served him well in “Room” but it’s a dangerous one to cultivate in “Outside.”

Donoghue took a real risk with Room and I applaud her for her courage. I think this is going to be a very polarizing book – people will probably either love it or hate it. They will feel it worked wonderfully or they will feel it didn’t work at all. Obviously, for me, it didn’t work at all. I thought the premise was wonderful, but I felt Donoghue failed to deliver. I honestly can’t understand how this book even made the Booker longlist, let alone the shortlist. I expect more depth and insight from a Booker nominated work. Do I think Donoghue was a lazy storyteller with Room? I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I do think she capitalized on gimmicks and topicality, and I was very disappointed. In the end, the whole thing felt like a cheap trick to me, and after reading it, I felt like I had to go take a long, hot shower.

1/5

Recommended: No.

Book Review - Fall of Giants by Ken Follett


Ken Follett is best known to some readers as the author of classic spy thrillers such as Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca. To others, he’s better known as the writer of the mega-bestseller revolving around the construction of a cathedral in the Middle Ages – The Pillars of the Earth as well as its sequel, World Without End. Like The Pillars of the Earth, Follet’s latest book, Fall of Giants still weaves history and fiction, but this time the history is a little more recent and revolves around the gathering storm clouds that presage the beginning of WWI as well as the war, itself.

The first book in Follett’s “Century Trilogy,” Fall of Giants, which clocks in at nearly 1,000 pages (I found my hardcover copy difficult to lug around due to weight alone), opens on June 22, 1911. King George V is being crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey, while in Aberowen, Wales, the fictitious thirteen-year-old Billy Williams is quitting school on his birthday to begin a career in the coal mines. The book concludes in November 1923 in Munich as one character expresses relief that some upstart named Adolph Hitler has failed in his attempts at mayhem and is in jail.

Follett has chosen five fictional families – one Welsh, one English, one American, one German, and one Russian – to follow as WWI, the centerpiece of the novel, plays out on the world stage. Two of these families are British, one the poverty-stricken Welsh Williams family mentioned above, the other the wealthy English Fitzherberts, the owners of the mine in which Billy Williams goes to work. Maud Fitzherbert, arguably, along with Ethel Williams, Billy’s sister, are the principle female characters in Fall of Giants, and Maud, at least, epitomizes one of Follett’s secondary themes: women’s rights, especially the right to vote.

The non-British families include an American, Gus Dewar, the son of a US senator and an idealistic young man, who serves in both Woodrow Wilson’s White House as a presidential aide and later, in the trenches in France. Walter von Ulrich is an aristocratic German, whose ties to his own country are conflicted at best and suspect at worst. Then there’s Grigori and Lev Peshkov, orphaned St. Petersburg brothers who work in a locomotive factory and whose bitterness at the atrocities committed in the name of the czar cause one of them to pursue a life of crime in the US and the other to rise to a prominent position in Lenin’s Bolshevik Party.

Follett does a wonderful job intertwining his fictional and real life characters’ lives, with the help of the war, of course. We learn how the lives of the Welsh family mingle with the lives of the English earl. We learn how the sister of the English earl becomes involved with a Prussian nobleman. We learn how the American crosses paths with one of the Russians, the English earl, the earl’s sister, her German lover and President Woodrow Wilson. In fact, Follett has devoted six pages at the front of the book to the cast of 123 characters that populate Fall of Giants (twenty of them really lived), and that cast of characters runs the gamut from “King George V” to “Theo, a thug.” Besides intertwining his characters’ lives with seeming ease, Follett also knows how to mix the low-born and the highly-bred with great success, and this, of course, gives rise to his primary theme in Fall of Giants: the fact that the decadent aristocracy needed to move over and make way for the modern age.

I was a little disappointed that one of my favorite historical figures, a member of that “decadent aristocracy,” Czar Nicholas II, failed to make even one appearance in the book, but his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm does make a cameo or two. The “giants” of the title, the crowned heads of Europe, who are all thoroughly ensconced in their respective kingdoms in 1911, are gone by the book’s end, all save King George V.

Some of these characters were far easier for me to become involved with than others, but that’s to be expected in a book of this scope and length, and I responded much more positively to some of the set pieces than I did to others, also to be expected.

I realize Follett, if he’s going to follow these same five families through two more books, and I thoroughly like the idea of his doing so, had to create some heirs in the first book. However, Follett’s “bedroom scenes,” for me, at least, proved to be his least memorable. Follett, of course, is no romance writer. I understand that. I just wish he’d written fewer scenes of “romantic interlude.” I never was a romance reader and I cringe at passages like “Her love for Walter had awakened within her a sleeping lion of physical desire, a beast that was both stimulated and tormented by their stolen kisses and furtive fumbles." Or worse, “He dreaded the thought of a baby's head cruelly stretching the narrow passage he loved so much.” Oh, dear. Suffice it to say that despite the female characters’ pull toward women’s rights, they aren’t averse to love and romance and sex, and there are plenty of births in this book, certainly enough to sustain Book II of the trilogy.

The best scenes for me were the war scenes. In these, Follett really shines. The most harrowing set piece, for me, at least, occurred after the deadly slaughter at Somme at which the men and boys from entire English villages were wiped out in one fell swoop. On a day known as “Telegram Day,” the villagers and townspeople would stand outside their homes, hoping against hope that the boy on the bicycle who delivers the telegrams informing them of their loved ones’ death would – somehow, some way – pass them by. It was chilling reading about this. It was difficult going, not because of any awkwardness in Follett’s prose, but because he perhaps described it too vividly for any caring person not to flinch.

I’ve heard several people say they found the ending anticlimactic, that the buildup to the Bolshevik Revolution caused the book to bog down. I didn’t find this to be true at all. In fact, I loved reading the “Russian parts,” but yes, it is lengthy, and yes, I’ve always had a fondness for all things Russian, so I was probably bound to like them no matter what.

Of course, we know how this all ends. We know who wins the war and who doesn’t. We know what happens – in detail – to each of Follett’s “real life” historical characters. However, we keep reading because Follett has made us care about his fictional characters as well. The multiple storylines are all believable and they are all well balanced. I liked Maud a bit more than Ethel, while you may like Ethel a bit more than Maud. I found the Russians more interesting than the American family. You might not. It doesn’t matter. Follett has managed to make each character’s story suspenseful and he manages to keep us reading to the end of the book despite the fact that we know how history is going to write itself. Still, like Follett’s spy thrillers, Fall of Giants is primarily plot-driven rather than character-driven, and with Folltt, who excels at constructing tightly woven, suspenseful plots, this is a plus, not a minus.

It should be mentioned that Follett is no prose stylist, nor does he pretend to be. In fact, Follett, himself, calls his prose “transparent.” Some may see this as a fault. In the type of plot-driven books he writes, I think a transparent prose style is exactly what’s needed, and it’s more difficult to achieve than many non-writers might think. Sure, there are a few clichés in this book, one or two missteps in the romantic set pieces, but that’s a mere quibble in a book of this size and scope. Overall, it’s finely written and very evocative of the early 20th century.

The best news, of course, is that the story doesn’t end here. Book II, which I believe is due out in 2012 and titled The Winter of the World, will follow the descendants of the five families introduced in Fall of Giants. If you’re like me, you can’t wait to see what’s in store for these people, and you’re already marking off the days on your calendar to its publication.

4.5/5

Recommended: Those who love “big books” and world history will probably love Fall of Giants. Those who prefer more introspective, character-driven books might not enjoy it quite so much. Then again, it just might make a wonderful change of pace.