Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review - The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert


One might think that a book titled The Gardens of Kyoto would be set in Japan, but such is not the case with Kate Walbert’s hauntingly beautiful debut novel. Instead, this lovely book wends its way from a brick mansion in Baltimore, Maryland to a hotel on Paris’ Rive Gauche, to a military hospital on Long Island, to a women’s college in suburban Philadelphia. Along the way, it makes stops to reveal “hidden” characters to the reader, fascinating people all, but people whose lives, at least in relation to the book’s narrator’s, are ephemeral, people whose lives blur through grief or tragedy or fantasy, people who may or may not be “real” to anyone but our narrator, people who may not be real even to themselves.

The Gardens of Kyoto begins with a deceptively simple sentence: “I had a cousin, Randall, killed on Iwo Jima. Have I told you?” The book, however, is complicated, structurally sophisticated, and ephemeral. The gardens in the title are a reference to Kyoto’s famous Ryoan-ji Zen gardens, probably constructed in the late 15th century, and consisting of an arrangement of fifteen rocks on raked, white pebbles, situated so that only fourteen are visible at any one time, from any vantage point. (In Buddhism, fifteen designates enlightenment, and presumably, one would have to be enlightened in order to see the fifteenth rock. Seeing it from the air does not count; in the 15th century, they could not conceive of such a thing as seeing from the air.) As Randall, the owner of the book, The Gardens of Kyoto, puts it, the gardens were meant to be viewed from a distance, “their fragments in relation.”

Walbert has chosen to tell her story within a frame, which leaves her free to roam the past as she chooses, and create a book in which all is never exactly what it seems. The book’s narrator, Ellen, the youngest of three sisters, is a middle-aged English teacher when she utters that simple opening line, though we don’t learn that fact until near the book’s end. As a young teenager, she was a shy, sensitive, dreamy girl who lived for her annual Easter visits to her cousin, Randall in Maryland.

Randall is a bookish and intellectually curious young man, a few years older than Ellen, and like Ellen, sensitive and quiet. He lives with his father, an elderly, retired judge, who spends his days closeted in his library, researching a biography of Jonathan Edwards. Randall is obsessed with memories of his deceased mother, and he enjoys showing Ellen secret rooms in his father’s house that were used to smuggle slaves to the North via the Underground Railroad. The young impressionable Ellen becomes totally infatuated with Randall, and according to her, their relationship is cemented by the fact that both of them have bright red hair. Ellen, in fact, becomes so taken with Randall that her brief association with her beloved cousin will color every relationship she has throughout the rest of her life.

We know, of course, that Randall is eventually sent to fight in WWII and that he doesn’t survive the war. (This is not a spoiler; as mentioned above, it’s revealed in the first sentence of the book.) In fact, one of the book’s early set pieces takes place in a diner in which Ellen is waiting with Randall and several other soldiers for a train that will take many of them away from their loved ones forever.

As she waits, Ellen thinks:

Too soon the feel of leaving descended upon the place. Soldiers scraped back their chairs, stood in line to pay their checks. Everyone had the same train to catch.

After learning of Randall’s presumed death on Iwo Jima (his body is never found), his father sends Ellen a package of Randall’s “treasures” that contains his (Randall’s) diary as well as his book, The Gardens of Kyoto. It is through Randall’s diary and his beloved book about Japan’s famous gardens that Ellen and the reader are able to piece together the history of Randall’s short life, and in so doing, learn about Ellen’s. Slowly, Randall takes on another role in Ellen’s life – not cousin or friend, but lover – real or imagined – but without a doubt, the single most important relationship Ellen will ever have.

As Ellen details her relationship with Randall for her own daughter, the narrative is colored with both grief and loss. We know how much Randall meant to Ellen; we’ve already come to like him ourselves; and we know he is one of the soldiers who will not return. Ellen doesn’t deny this fact, even to herself:

Sometimes, when I think about it, I see the two of us there, Randall and me, from a different perspective, as if I were Mother walking through the door to call us for supper.... One will never grow old, never age. One will never plant tomatoes, drive automobiles, go to dances. One will never drink too much and sit alone, wishing, in the dark.

However, as she remembers her last conversation with Randall, it might have been his smile that affected Ellen most of all:

Have I told you his was a beautiful smile? Not the smile of a cynic, nor the easy, hungry smile of boys his age, whose smiles that aim to get them somewhere, are a commodity in exchange for God knows what. No. His was completely without intent; an accident of a smile. The kind of smile that would have surprised him if he could have seen it for himself. But he was too young to know his own extraordinariness.

As Ellen continues to relate her story, we learn how she and others like her felt about coming of age in the 1950s. Certain things, taken for granted (or not taken for granted, but acknowledged as not to be swept under the figurative rug) today, were simply not tolerated in the era immediately following WWII. One was rebellion, something one of Ellen’s sisters displays during an otherwise “normal” and “loving” Thanksgiving Day dinner. Domestic abuse was another, along with the other things one preferred not to deal with. Unwed pregnancies were taboo, as was suicide and the madness to which some of the soldiers in WWII and Korea were driven. The emotional devastation of war is a constant theme running through The Gardens of Kyoto, and it affects Randall’s father, Sterling, Ellen’s sister, Rita and her husband, Roger, Ellen, herself, and Lt. Henry Rock, a handsome young man who falls in love with the already “attached” Daphne, one of Ellen’s friends, and with whom Ellen, herself falls instantly in love. Of the emotionally damaged war veterans, Ellen says:

They pretended to be fine, but if you looked you’d see that they were not fine at all. We weren’t supposed to look. We were supposed to welcome them home, pretending, as they pretended.

These then – vanishing women, endangered children, and men permanently damaged by war – make up the novel’s recurring motifs, and one might assume that a book detailing so much tragedy and violence would become “weighty” and perhaps even melodramatic. Walberg, however, writes such restrained prose, with such a light touch that for the most part, the book remains delicate and lyrical, and because of its restraint, all the more chilling.

The Gardens of Kyoto is a rich, full book, with wonderfully developed, imperfect characters and beautifully developed themes. Is it perfect? No, it’s not. At times, Walbert relies too much on epistolary gimmicks to advance her plot than she does on her own considerable powers as a writer. Besides the diary and book that are given to Ellen by Sterling, Randall’s father, there’s the note from glamorous Aunt Ruby to Randall that reveals a long buried family secret; there’s the letter that Randall steals from a locked box in his father’s desk; there are the invented letters from his sweetheart the lieutenant reads out loud in the evening to try to boost the morale of his men; and then there are the bloodstained letters culled from the corpses in the trenches (only letters free from stains were sent on to the families of deceased soldiers to minimize the families’ pain). And in a book that’s remarkable for its lovely nuanced understatement, Ellen’s deliberate staining of Henry’s letters with her own blood is a bit too much. And given the fact that the title of the book is the name of a Japanese rock garden, it’s a little heavy handed that Henry’s surname just happens to be “Rock.” Fortunately, these minor jarring notes don’t harm the beauty or the power of this book. I’m going to guess that some readers will even like them, and even those who don’t will be willing to forgive.

In setting down her story, Ellen blurs the lines of fantasy and reality. She remembers the first time she kisses Randall, and that blurs into the first time she kisses Henry. Eventually, the reader has to question which events in the book really happened and which are only products of Ellen’s wishful thinking.

Eventually, the reader comes to question whether or not objective truth even exists with regard to human relationships, something Ellen seems to understand. Near the end of the book, Ellen admits her admiration for Shakespeare’s Iago, saying, “I am not what I am. We are none of us who we are.”

The writing in The Gardens of Kyoto is gorgeous. Except for the few instances of the overuse of epistolary devices mentioned above, this is a beautiful and beautifully understated book. The prose is poetic and lyrical; the sentences are, for the most part, long, detailed, and almost as multilayered as the book. It was a joy to read this book for the prose alone. And though the structure and themes are “heavy” and complicated, the book never feels overwrought. Instead, it has an airy, weightless quality that I very much admired.

In the end, The Gardens of Kyoto, while taking place primarily in the US and revolving around American characters, expresses a profoundly Japanese view that “truth,” like the gardens of Ryoan-ji, is subjective and depends solely on the viewer’s vantage point.

I thought this was an extraordinary book – extraordinary in its finely drawn characters, in the scope of its plot and theme, and in the understatement and beauty of its poetic prose.

It’s far too little known and read.

4.5/5

Recommended: Yes, to those who love highly literary fiction. Its themes are lofty and its structure is complicated. This isn’t a “feel good” book, nor is it a book to simply wile away the hours. It is, however, a book that will stay with the reader, not only long after the last page is turned, but probably forever.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Writing Life - Book Publishing Today - The Good and the Not So Good


Most people already know traditional publishing houses are in trouble. Most, if not all of them are laying off editors (some say as many as thirty percent) or asking them to take a pay cut. They’re pinching pennies wherever they can, and this includes the advances for debut authors and midlist authors. In fact, if a midlist author’s book does not sell well, he or she will probably find it difficult-to-impossible to publish another one in this economic climate. Booksellers, too, are struggling. Many of the smaller, indie bookstores are closing or filing bankruptcy, while the big chains have frozen hiring, cut their staff, or are even exploring the option of bankruptcy.

A recent study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that while more people are reading literary fiction, fewer people are actually reading – and buying – books.

However, at a time when many mainstream publishers are losing ground and fast, there is one segment of the publishing industry that is flourishing – self-publishing.

With books like Jim Bendat’s Democracy’s Big Day, a collection of historical vignettes revolving around presidential inaugurations, enjoying relatively “big” sales of more than 2,500 copies, would-be authors who dream of seeing their work between covers are flocking to self-publishers in droves. As the result of self-publishing his book, Sky News asked Mr. Bendar to provide live commentary during the Inauguration of President Barack Obama, while a group of Washington hotels ordered five hundred copies to give to guests who were in town for the event. Sometimes self-publishing is the right choice, sometimes not. Every writer has to weigh the pros and cons and decide for himself.

Bendat, an LA public defender, did try to secure a publishing deal with a traditional house, but when he was unable to do so, he went to iUniverse, one of the biggest, and one of the first, of the self-publishers. In 2000, the first edition of Bendat’s book was published, and he updated it in 2004 and again in 2008.

It is true that traditional publishers are pruning their lists, and they are relying more and more on their “big guns,” authors like James Patterson, John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, and Mary Higgins Clark. They know these authors have a huge following, and their books are not only going to sell, but sell big. I know some aspiring authors who resent the “big name” authors for this. No aspiring author should, though. Those big names and their huge sales of highly commercial fiction are supporting the publishing houses so those houses can buy and publish more literary titles, titles fewer people are going to buy and read, but titles many are still going to love, titles like Paul Harding's Tinkers that might end up winning awards.

While traditional publishing houses are struggling, however, self-publishing presses are making money off books that sell as few as five or ten copies, and adding to this profit is the fact that POD (print-on-demand) publishers don’t have to pay for cover design and printing costs. In self-publishing and POD, these costs are passed along to the author.

In 2008, Author Solutions, a Bloomington, Indiana based company that owns iUniverse, among other POD imprints, published 13,000 titles, up twelve percent from 2007. And now, that same company has purchased Xlibris. The combined imprints published more than 19,000 titles in 2008 alone, which is three times more than Random House, the world’s largest of the traditional publishers, published.

Still, this is a time when everyone, or nearly everyone, wants to write a book. And that’s part of the problem. There are many, many more people who want to write books than people who want to read those books, no matter how good they might be. So, if you’re preparing a manuscript to send to an agent or an editor at a traditional publishing house, make sure it’s one that will figuratively knock their socks off. Remember, you have more competition, and stiffer competition, than ever before. (You really need to get a “fresh pair of eyes” to look at your book, an Independent Editor like me or like others out there, but that’s a subject for later.)

Regarding POD and self-publishing, there are many professionals who want to be seen as a “guru” in their chosen field. A business card is no longer enough. These professionals want to be known as “the author of....” Other people who dive into the POD and self-publishing waters, many of them non-professionals, simply want to publish a book to give as gifts to family and friends. In some ways, this is good. While it used to be only the wealthy and the elite who could self-publish a book, now anyone with $900 - $4,000 and up can do so. And if the statistics are to be believed, Blurb, a POD company has seen its revenues grow from $1,000,000 to $30,000,000 in just two years, with more than 300,000 titles published alone last year. Eileen Gittins, the CEO of Blurb, says that many of these 300,000 titles were personal books, purchased only by the author.

Self-publishing isn’t even close to taking over the industry, however. Not yet. Author Solutions sold a total of 2.5 million copies in 2008, while Little, Brown sold more than that many copies of the “Twilight” series by Stephanie Meyer in just the last two months of 2008.

A lot of people who choose to self-publish are lured to that venue by the fact that they can get their books into the market – and often on sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble – in a matter of months, not years, and without the discouraging rejection slips that almost every traditionally published author has to face. Of course these self-published authors also give up any advance for their book (they don’t just give up a large advance, they give up any advance at all), they must devise their own marketing strategy, and in all likelihood, they’ll never see their books reviewed in newspapers or on the shelves of bookstores. And why should newspapers take the time to review self-published books, and why should bookstores stock them? With little-to-no quality control, the honest truth is that most of what comes from POD publishers is pretty bad. Robert Young, CEO or Lulu Enterprises, based in Raleigh, NC, said the majority of his company’s titles are of little interest to anyone but the author and the author’s family. “We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,” says Mr. Young.

However, if it’s just money you’re looking for and not prestige and you’re writing for a niche market, then POD publishing might be exactly the way to go. Michelle L. Long is an accountant who advises small business. She self-published Successful QuickBooks Consulting, a guild for others who want to help businesses use the software package developed by Intuit a few years ago. Long says she earned forty-five to fifty percent of the cover price on the sale of each book and made roughly $22,000 in royalties on the sale of more than 2,000 copies. Not bad. A traditionally published midlist author probably won’t make nearly that much. I know about another author who self-published a book for a niche market, and so far, he’s made more than $40,000. (Be aware that you won’t make anything near that if you’re self-publishing a novel, no matter how good that novel is. In fact, the average number of copies sold, even in a niche market is only 150, according to Author Solutions.) If you do have a book for a niche market, such as one on Internet security, how to survive day trading, etc., and you’re a consultant, not looking for a career as an author, a book, even a self-published book, will help you gain credibility, and some money, more than not having one. And, the more specific the need, the better your book will probably sell as long as you get the word out there.

There are authors who self-publish traditional novels with the hope of being discovered by a traditional publishing house. This has happened to a few, but don’t count on it because it’s a very, very, very rare thing.

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry, a story of a woman who can tell the future by reading the patterns in lace, was first self-published, then it attracted the attention of HarperCollins and eventually became a bestseller. Barry’s second book, A Map of True Places was selected as one of the Top Ten Books of the year.

Lisa Genova, a former consultant to pharmaceutical companies, wrote her first novel, Still Alice, a story about a woman with Alzheimer’s and was subsequently turned down by more than one hundred literary agents. Ms. Genova then decided to self-publish through iUniverse and sold copies to independent bookstores. When a fellow author discovered the book and introduced Ms. Genova to an agent, that agent sold Still Alice for a mid-six-figure advance to Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. The book debuted on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list at number five.

Louise Burke, publisher of Pocket Books, said some publishers now scour the Internet looking for new material among the reader comments regarding self-published books. Self-publishing, she says, is “no longer a dirty word.” (If you’re a really good writer, you should definitely be seeking publication in a traditional hardcover edition first, though, or you won’t be taken seriously by professional reviewers, something that's very important.)

Most people know J.K. Rowling needed ten years and more than two hundred query letters to sell Harry Potter. The agents and editors she contacted said “no one” would want to read a book about a boy wizard. Of course, they were wrong.

And Kathryn Stockett’s agent needed five years to sell her bestselling book, The Help. The publishing world didn’t believe anyone would care to read about the relationship among black servants and their white employers in 1960s Mississippi. They were wrong again.

John Grisham had trouble selling his first novel, The Firm. After his second, The Pelican Brief became a hit movie, publishers couldn’t publish The Firm fast enough to keep up with demand.

And then there are always the exceptions that prove the rule. Elizabeth Kostova sold her debut novel, The Historian in two days for approximately two million, while Diane Setterfield sold The Thirteenth Tale in a ten-day auction for more than one million. Debut authors are being published traditionally, and a few of them are being paid very high advances. But you can’t count on getting a large advance from a traditional house just like you can’t count on having your self-published book picked up by a traditional publisher. If you are counting on either of those things, you might as well play the lottery, instead. The chances of winning are better.

“For ever thousand titles that get self-published, maybe there’s two that should have been published,” says Cathy Langer, lead buyer for the Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver, Colorado. Langer, who says she’s “inundated” with requests from self-published authors to buy their book, continued, “People think that just because they’ve written something, there’s a market for it. It’s not true.”

This is – to a certain extent – discouraging news for the writers out there. But getting published has always been tough. Right now, it’s just a little tougher than it was before. If you hold out for a traditional publisher, the best thing you can do is to hire an independent editor to make sure your manuscript is as perfect and polished and as perfectly polished as it possibly can be before any agent or editor ever lays eyes on it. You only get one shot with any one editor. Don’t hand anyone a perfectly valid reason to say “no.”

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Writing Life - My Ten Favorite Books Written by Women

This list was inspired by a blog entry on the site She Writes.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Emma by Jane Austen

Let me know what you think of my own personal choices and what your favorite books, written by women authors are.

Book Review - Possession by A.S. Byatt


I know the Booker winning novel, Possession was written several years ago. I did read it when it was published, but I couldn’t resist reading it again. I’m currently writing a book that for some odd reason, reminds me of Possession. I’m not sure what the connection is. None of the characters in my book are poets or academics, though one is highly intrigued by poetry, and his deceased mother was a poet – of sorts. There is no race to find something that will turn the academic world on its ear. None of it takes place in Victorian England. In fact, it takes place in mid-20th century Appalachia. It has a far larger cast of characters than Possession. But for some reason, something about my book’s tone reminds me of the tone of Possession. Maybe there’s only one scene that reminds me of Byatt’s book. I hope so. While I admire Possession greatly, a writer has to be original. Whatever it is, I felt the urge to reread Possession, one of my favorite books of all time, and since I didn’t review it the first time around (I didn't even have computer access until 2001), I thought I would this time in case any of you are still “on the fence” about whether or not to delve into it.

Possession begins in 1986 in the Reading Room of the London Library, when Roland Mitchell, a postdoctoral research assistant at London University who’s studying the work of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (aka Robert Browning) opens the poet’s personal copy of Giambattista Vico's Principi di una Scienza Nuova. As Byatt writes:

The book was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or, rather, protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.

The book alone sounds intriguing, but when he opens it, Mitchell finds an unexpected surprise. Besides the expected marginalia, there are two letters to an unnamed woman Ash apparently met at breakfast in the 1850s. (Mitchell recognizes Ash’s characteristic shaky handwriting.) Although he’s a “good guy,” Mitchell can’t resist removing the letters and taking them with him. He knows what a potential treasure he’s just stumbled upon, and he fully intends to find out just who this unnamed lady could have been.

Mitchell, who’s a pretty good literary detective, soon discovers that the woman Ash was writing to was another poet, Christabel LaMotte (Christina Rossetti). Ash was unhappily married, and Christabel was in a lesbian relationship with a woman called Blanche Glover, though LaMotte was bisexual. Mitchell immediately recognizes that if a credible, long term, i.e., more than the two letters, relationship existed between Ash and LaMotte, it would make literary history and go a long way toward advancing his academic career.

In his quest to find out the secrets that haunted Ash’s life, Mitchell teams up with a chilly, seemingly unemotional, feminist academic, Dr. Maud Bailey, who lives “on the outskirts of Lincoln” and just happens to be the world’s leading LaMotte scholar. In fact, she’s distantly related to LaMotte. And, although Roland Mitchell’s attracted to Maud Bailey, he can’t see himself falling in love:

Roland had learned to see himself, theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems, all loosely connected. He had been trained to see his idea of his ‘self” as an illusion, to be replaced by a discontinuous machinery and electrical message-network of various desires, ideological beliefs and responses, language-forms and hormones and pheromones.

Although Roland Mitchell can’t see himself “in love,” he does “enjoy” an uninspired relationship and is currently living in a damp basement flat in London with a woman named Val. While not as chilly and icy as the very distant Maud Bailey, and a nice enough person, Val doesn’t really inspire romantic feelings in Mitchell, and their relationship lasts only because neither one is inclined to end it.

Of course it comes as no surprise that Mitchell and Bailey “sort of” fall in love as they uncover “the truth” about Ash and LaMotte. In one of the best parts of the book, they visit the country manor house of Sir George Bailey (a wonderful character), the house where Christabel LaMotte lived most of her life in seclusion.

The narrative, which I found beautiful, is sprinkled with letters from the poets to each other, poems supposedly written by both Ash and LaMotte, and 19th century diary entries. Most of the people I know who read Possession told me they skipped the poetry. I think that was a mistake. The poems are organic to the story. No, they might not have been written in the 19th century, and I’m no expert on 19th century English poetry, but I felt Byatt did an excellent job with them, and she is an expert on Victorian poetry and the Victorian period in general. I felt many of the poems were quite beautiful in their own right, but really, that’s neither here nor there. The fact is they do add much to the story. The poetry, diary entries and letters allow Byatt to let Ash and LaMotte tell their tragic love story in their own words, something I think added greatly to the book. And the love story that existed between Ash and LaMotte eventually becomes a counterpoint to the growing, and far less passionate, relationship between Mitchell and Bailey.

As Mitchell and Bailey advance in their search for the truth about Ash and LaMotte, they come to realize they aren’t the only ones journeying on the same quest, and some of the other participants are far more powerful than they. One is Professor Leonora Stern, an overweight lesbian from the United States, who is interested primarily in LaMotte’s relationship with Glover. Then, there is Professor James Blackadder, who has been editing Ash’s Complete Works since 1951 and just happens to be Mitchell’s mentor. And I can’t leave out Mortimor Cropper, a scholar and entrepreneur whose greatest desire is to possess anything and everything that Randolph Henry Ash once possessed.

With all these people trying desperately to uncover the secret behind Ash and LaMotte’s relationship, the quest becomes more of a race on par with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, though it’s much better written, of course. In fact, in my opinion, Possession is a gorgeously written novel, and though I didn’t care for the love relationship between Mitchell and Bailey (I found it dry and as chilly as Maud Bailey, herself), I thoroughly loved the one between Ash and LaMotte.

“The truth” is revealed at the novel’s end, as all the above, minus Ash and LaMotte, of course, meet in a Sussex churchyard. A lot of readers are going to guess the end, and the secret, long before it’s revealed, though those who don’t will probably enjoy the book most of all.

I adore this book, but I do have to repeat that the one thing about it I don’t adore is the relationship between Mitchell and Bailey. It isn’t that I didn’t find it believable. I did. I just didn’t care for Maud Bailey, and I felt both Mitchell and Bailey paled so much beside Ash and LaMotte that their characters suffered. You might like them, however. Literature is nothing if not subjective.

In the end, Possession is a gorgeous book, gorgeously written, and it’s one that burrows down into the subconscious, never letting you forget the impact of its closing pages.

4.5/5

Recommended: Yes, to those who love literary fiction and the 19th century. Be aware, though, that although this book is a Booker winner, every person I know besides me save one has not cared for it, mainly because of the inclusion of the letters, the diary entries, and the poetry. It’s difficult-to-impossible to predict how one will react to this book. I would have rated it 5/5 if I’d liked the “chilly” characters of Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey more.

Note: I’ve also seen the movie, Possession, based on the book, and while I found it true to the book, my dislike for Mitchell and Bailey, especially Bailey, was only reinforced. Still, the movie is worth a rental. I actually own the DVD.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Writing Tips - Story Beginnings - Part Two


I’ve written about the importance of a novel’s beginning previously on this blog, and in truth, that importance can’t be overstated. Your novel’s opening words have to draw the reader into the book, give him or her something to care about and something to intrigue, something to entice, a reason to keep holding onto the book and turning the pages.

Unfortunately, too many writers think the only way to draw a reader in is with non-stop action. The concept of “hitting the ground running” has been drummed into writers so often it’s not unusual to find a murder mystery beginning with a death in the first sentence. This isn’t always the best way to draw your reader into the fictional world you’ve created. In fact, “starting with a bang,” so to speak, can actually be disorienting at times.

If you watch potential book buyers in a bookshop, they pick up a book, leaf through it, maybe read a paragraph here and there as well as the cover blurb, then either put the book back on the shelf or buy it. No potential reader expects to fully grasp your story situation with one quick leaf through, and they aren’t searching for the inciting incident. Heck, they probably don’t even know what the words, “inciting incident” mean, though you, as the writer, need to.

What a potential book buyer is looking for is the style of the book, the language, that unique something that makes your writing yours and yours alone. That’s what draws a reader in. Flat, vague writing, no matter how many fireworks go off in its midst, causes a reader to put a book back on the shelf. Language that speaks to the reader, along with vivid imagery, pulls him into the story and won’t let him put the book down.

Margaret Atwood, a master writer, used description to begin my favorite of all her novels, the bestselling Alias Grace. This is how that book begins:

Out of the gravel there are peonies growing. They come up through the loose grey pebbles, their buds testing the air like snails’ eyes, then swelling and opening, huge dark-red flowers all shining and glossy like satin. Then they burst and fall to the ground.

In the one instant before they come apart they are like the peonies in the front garden at Mrs. Kinnear’s that first day, only those were white. Nancy was cutting them. She wore a pale dress with pink rosebuds and a triple-flounced skirt, and a straw bonnet that hid her face. She carried a flat basket, to put the flowers in; she bent from the hips like a lady, holding her waist straight. When she heard us and turned to look, she put her hand up to her throat as if startled.

I tuck my head down while I walk, keeping step with the rest, eyes lowered, silently two by two around the yard, inside the square made by the high stone walls. My hands are clasped in front of me; they’re chapped, the knuckles reddened. I can’t remember a time when they were not like that. The toes of my shoes go in and out under the hem of my skirt, blue and white, blue and white, crunching on the pathway. These shoes fit me better than any I’ve ever had before.

It’s 1851. I’ll be twenty-four years old next birthday. I’ve been shut up in here since the age of sixteen. I’m a model prisoner, and give no trouble.


I love this opening, and when I picked up Alias Grace on a table in my local bookstore, it definitely interested me. I wanted to read more of the book. I wanted to read all it, and I did.

This masterful opening provides the reader with a lot of information, and it raises quite a few questions. For example, who is the narrator? Why on earth has she been in prison for nearly eight years now? And at such a young age? She certainly doesn’t seem like the criminal type. She’s obviously very intelligent and observant. She describes the peonies in near-poetic terms.

Who is Mrs. Kinnear? Who is Nancy? Did they play any part in the crime allegedly committed by our narrator? Could our narrator be dreaming? Could she be mad? Could she be shut up in a mental hospital rather than in a prison? Is this opening part of a story-within-a-story? To find out, a reader is going to have to read on.

But it isn’t just the “need to know” that caused me to purchase and read Alias Grace, though that was part of it. I loved Atwood’s tone in her opening paragraphs. I loved the quiet way Atwood imparted so much information and raised so many questions. (I’m not generally a fan of literary fireworks.) I love the narrator’s ability to observe and describe the flowering of peony bushes in poetic terms, even comparing them to snails’ eyes. I could tell from the description of the clothing, even before our narrator provided us with the year, that the story was going to take place in the 19th century, another factor that interested me. I was able to “get lost” in the beautiful flow of this book immediately, in the first paragraph, really. And that’s what readers want to do. They want to get lost in good book, and it’s your job to make it easy for them to do so.

If you have a novel beginning you’re working on now, take a look at it. Does it raise questions in the mind of the reader that he or she will definitely want answered? Does it impart information that causes the reader to become curious about your narrative and your characters? Does it pull the reader into the world you’ve created? Alias Grace definitely pulls the reader into the mid-19th century. However, if Atwood had been writing a science fiction novel, this beginning wouldn’t have worked so well. You can’t entice your reader with one thing, then switch horses in mid-stream and hope to keep that same reader interested. As I stated above, I love 19th century literature and most literature that takes place during the 19th century. However, I’m not nearly as keen on science fiction no matter when or where it takes place. I would have been very disappointed had Alias Grace turned out to be science fiction in the next chapter.

A lot of writing instructors will tell you to begin each chapter, and especially your beginning with action or dialogue. Sometimes this works, but other times, most of the time, I think, the reader needs to be oriented first. He or she needs to be introduced to the time period in which you’re writing, to the main character, or someone who will interact with the main character, and most of all, to the style of writing you intend to employ throughout the book. The beginning of Alias Grace does all these things and more.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Book Review - The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai


It’s hard for me to say whether Kiran Desai’s second novel, the 2006 Man Booker winner, The Inheritance of Loss, is panoramic or intimate. On one hand, it stretches from northern India to New York City to England, yet on the other, it focuses so closely on the lives of its primary characters that it can sometimes be almost claustrophobic. Focusing on the very poor and the middle class, this beautifully written and haunting novel lets its readers know how, even in the midst of change, there are people who long for the “old ways,” who desire not change, but stability and security. People who want to wake up in the morning and know that things are still the same.

Most of The Inheritance of Loss takes place in 1986 and is set in the northeastern Himalayas, “where India blurred into Bhutan and Sikkim,” where “it had always been a messy map.” The book focuses, in part, on Sai, a seventeen-year-old orphan, who now lives with her grandfather, a retired judge, a “leftover” of the Indian Civil Service, in a damp and crumbling house called Cho Oyu in the village of Kalimpong at the foot of the snowy massif of Mount Kangchenjunga. Sai is cared for by her grandfather’s talkative and (sometimes) optimistic cook, a man who focuses all his hopes and dreams on his own son, Biju, who he calls “the luckiest boy in the world” after he’s granted a US visa and goes to New York.

Conflict in this novel begins when Sai’s Nepali math tutor, Gyan, and the man with whom Sai has fallen in love, joins a Nepalese insurgent movement. In fact, the book opens with some of these insurgents breaking into Sai’s grandfather’s house to steal whatever they find useful, in this case, food, cold cream, Grand Marnier, and Sai’s grandfather’s old rifles. Although this is a painful inciting incident in an overall melancholy book, Desai does add a bit of humor to the escapade of the robbery in the form of the judge’s dog’s reaction:

Mutt began to do what she always did when she met strangers: she turned a furiously wagging bottom to the intruders and looked around from behind, smiling, conveying both shyness and hope.

The judge, however, is deeply humiliated and even has to prepare tea for the intruders who stole his possessions. Both Sai and the cook are so embarrassed and afraid for him that they avert their gazes (I’m glad Desai did not write “eyes”) from what is going on.

This humor in the midst of melancholy, found throughout, elevates this book beyond a merely “good” book to one that’s truly “great” as do many other elements, however, it’s melancholy that drives this book’s narrative, it’s melancholy that forms its soul, and it’s melancholy that readers will remember. Even the secondary characters, such as Sai’s neighbors, Swiss Father Booty and his alcoholic friend, Uncle Potty are melancholic, victims, of a sort, trapped in a world that no longer exists.

After setting up her story, Desai then drops back to quieter moments and shows us how the lives of Gyan and Sai and her grandfather, along with the cook and his son, Biju intertwine. The book roams from Kalimpong to New York City to England in the 1940s, where the judge’s experience of studying at Cambridge mirrors Biju’s experience in New York in that both approach their situations filled with idealism, and both are ground down by the experience of having to live life in a culture that perceives them – wrongly, of course – as only second class citizens.

Regarding the judge’s time at Cambridge, Desai writes:

Despite his attempts to hide, he merely emphasized something that unsettled others. For entire days nobody spoke to him at all…elderly ladies…moved over when he sat next to them in the bus, so he knew that whatever they had, they were secure in their conviction that it wasn't even remotely as bad as what he had.

And mirroring the judge’s experiences at Cambridge is Biju, who works in restaurants that are clean above and filthy below, and whose owners are nothing if not exploitative. Biju drifts from job to job, then:

Slipping out and back on the street. It was horrible what happened to Indians abroad and nobody knew but other Indians abroad. It was a dirty little rodent secret.

Desai seems not to be a proponent of multiculturalism, or perhaps she’s just not too optimistic about it.

Though many see the theme of The Inheritance of Loss as exile and displacement, I saw it as exile and displacement through the inability to communicate. After all, some of the characters that never leave Kalimpong end up alone and adrift. As this book shows clearly, one need not leave one’s home or place of birth in order to be exiled. The Inheritance of Loss is filled with failings, from the failing of a marriage to the failing of a “new life,” to the failing of a phone call.

I know people who felt this book contained too many story threads. I think it all depends on personal preference. Some people prefer to follow only one character through an entire book, no matter how long, while others prefer books that are more panoramic in scope. Desai does give us much backstory and many flashbacks. The structure of the novel is sophisticated; there are even flashbacks within flashbacks. Some readers will enjoy this, while others will find themselves impatient to get back to the story of Sai and Gyan and to the story of Biju. And it is true that Desai takes her time in letting her story unfold. For example, we learn about Gyan in Chapter One, but it’s twelve more chapters before Gyan actually enters the book. Eventually, though, Desai ties everything together and she does a wonderful job doing so.

One of the things I loved most about this book was the assured, confident, and beautiful writing. Desai is a keen observer of life and all its details, and she expresses her observations beautifully. This is but one example: “The gale took his words and whipped them away; they reached Biju's ears strangely clipped, on their way to somewhere else.” And this: “The flame cast a mosaic of shiny orange across the cook's face, and his top half grew hot, but a mean gust tortured his arthritic knees.”

I’ve never lived in a small village in northern India, but I certainly felt like I had after reading this beautiful book. I thought Desai no doubt captured the time period perfectly. Some of the characters – like Father Booty and Uncle Potty – seemed to want to live in a colonial time warp, where nothing changes, while others, such as Gyan, were dreaming of the changes a political upheaval could bring. All in all, I thought the characters, both those who resisted change and those who were fighting for it, were brilliantly realized.

Desai’s first novel, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard was endorsed by Salman Rushdie and her writing, at the time, was compared to his. In truth, that book, which centers around a misfit named Sampath Chawla, who crawls up in the branches of a guava tree and won’t come down and in doing so achieves celebrity as a hermit, does contain many “Rushdie like” influences, though the writing is no where near as “furious” as Rushdie’s tends to be. The Inheritance of Loss is a totally different book altogether. Personally, I didn’t see a lot of “Rushdie like” influences in this second novel, which, in my opinion, is far superior to Desai’s first, though there are a few – strings of adjectives with no commas to separate them, occasional playfulness, and great energy – being the most prominent. The Inheritance of Loss is a quieter and more melancholy book that Rushdie usually writes (The Moor’s Last Sigh might be the exception), and the prose, while still gorgeous, is more spare than Rushdie’s. In this book, I think Desai shares more with V.S. Naipaul than she does with Rushdie, though most of the time, I try to avoid comparisons as they always seems unfair. Though writers sometimes do resemble other writers, each writer is unique.

You may not love The Inheritance of Loss due to its excessive melancholy (this is definitely not a “feel good” book), but I don’t think any serious reader is going to deny that the book is wonderfully written. In the end, The Inheritance of Loss is a luminous book, and, while not, perhaps, heartwarming, it is profoundly human in its promise and in its generosity.

5/5

Recommended: Yes, most definitely, to lovers of highly literary fiction and to readers who can tolerate a slower paced book.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays!


To all my friends and blog readers, Happy Holidays and Seasons Greetings! I hope 2011 brings us all health, wealth, happiness and more good books than we can possibly read.

Thank you for reading my blog, commenting on my blog, for trusting me as your editor, and for being a friend. Know you are appreciated. All the best to you and your families.

Today in Literary History - Oscar Wilde Departs for America


On December 24, 1881, Oscar Wilde left England for America and a year-long lecture tour on topics such as “The House Beautiful” and “The Decorative Arts.” It’s not certain whether or not Wilde did tell his fellow passengers that “the roaring ocean does not roar,” or that he told a customs agent, “I have nothing to declare except my genius,” but we do know that the captain of the ship said he regretted not having Wilde “lashed to the bowsprit on the windward side.”

In the US, thousands turned out to see and hear Wilde and so many took to heart his mission “to make this artistic movement the basis for a new civilization” that craft societies and museum patronage blossomed, both during and after his visit.

Wilde, himself wrote home that he was a bigger hit than Dickens by far, and said the personal adulation heaped upon him required his hiring of not one, but three, secretaries. “One writes my autographs all day for my admirers, the other receives the flowers that are left really every ten minutes. A third whose hair resembles mine is obliged to send off locks of his own hair to the myriad maidens of the city, and so is rapidly becoming bald.”

But not all was adulation. Wilde was the target of much mocking during his US tour, some of it good-natured, some of it not. A few mocked his poetry, though most zeroed in on his appearance, in particular his “great ungainly crane” of a body, his purple Hungarian smoking jacket, with matching turban, knee breeches and black silk stockings, his coat lined with lavender satin, and everything laced and caped and topped with a sky blue cravat. One Chicago clothing store even went so far as to use his photo, dubbed a photo of the “Ass-thete” to promote their more masculine line.

The mocking sometimes had Wilde a bit “out of sorts,” but he was never outmatched, and he was usually up for any adventure, especially a game of wit.

As incomprehensible as it seems, the “prissy” Wilde gave a talk in a mining town called Leadville in the Rockies. “I spoke to them of the early Florentines,” he said, “and they slept as though no crime had ever stained the ravines of their mountain home.” After the talk, Wilde agreed to descend to the bottom of a silver mine in a bucket saying, “I, of course, true to my principle, being graceful even in a bucket.” And the townspeople cheered him on when he dined, drank whiskey, and smoked a cigar. What happened next is best described in Wilde’s own words:

Then I had to open a new vein, or lode, which with a silver drill I brilliantly performed, amidst unanimous applause. The silver drill was presented to me and the lode named “The Oscar.” I had hoped that in their simple grand way they would have offered me shares in “The Oscar,” but in their artless untutored fashion they did not. Only the silver drill remains as a memory of my night at Leadville.

That night, Wilde spent time in the local bar and took particular note of a sign that read: “Please do not shoot the pianist; he is doing his best.”

Back in England, Wilde toured again, giving his “Impressions of America,” and he recalled his night in Leadville with obvious delight. “I was struck with this recognition of the fact that bad art merits the penalty of death,” he said, “and I felt that in this remote city, where the aesthetic applications of the revolver were clearly established in the case of music, my apostolic task would be much simplified, as indeed it was.”

Oscar Wilde really was “one of a kind.”

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Review - In the Forest by Edna O'Brien


Several years ago, when I was first introduced to the work of the great Irish writer, Edna O’Brien, I immediately fell in love with the savage and poetic “word pictures” she paints. Her writing never fails to draw me in, emotionally and intellectually, on the very first page, and it really never lets me go. Edna O’Brien’s writing is writing that stays with me - resonating, enchanting, mesmerizing - long after I’ve read the final page.

O’Brien’s novel, In the Forest, is based on a true story that took place in County Clare, Ireland in 1994, during which a deranged local boy killed a young mother, her son and a local priest who had befriended them.

O’Brien sets the tone of her book with the very first words of her lush, incandescent, almost indescribably Joycean prose:

Woodland straddling two counties and several townlands, a drowsy corpus of green, broken only where the odd pine has struck up on its own, spindly, freakish, the stray twigs on either side branched, cruciform-wise. In the interior the trapped wind gives off the rustle of a distant sea and the tall slender trunks of the spruces are so close together that the barks are a sable-brown, the light becoming darker and darker into the chamber of non-light. At the farthest entrance under the sweep of a brooding mountain there is a wooden hut choked with briars and brambles where a dead goat decomposed and stank during those frantic, suspended, and sorrowing days. It was then the wood lost its old name and its old innocence in the hearts of the people.

This is Cloosh Wood, a place of horror and sorrow, of death and decay, for O’Brien lets us know the body of “a dead woman” lies in Cloosh Wood, undiscovered, decomposing. This woman is Eily Ryan, a wild, beautiful, vagabond. A woman whose very innocence and naïveté may have contributed to her own murder, for Eily sees no evil in Cloosh Wood:

I would come here for the mornings alone. Everything fresh, sparkling, the fields washed after rain, the whole world washed. Daisies and clover and blue borrage springing up, and the young cattle on the other side of the fence, frisking, kicking their hind legs and their tails, as if they have taken leave of their senses. The apple and crab-apple trees are coming into flower, apparitions of white, cloaked in green.

O’Brien has chosen to tell her story in one long flashback, broken up into named chapters, so even though we know from page one that Eily, her son, Maddy, and Father John Fitzgerald are going to be murdered, we don’t yet know the circumstances under which these murders will occur and, this “need to know” suffuses O’Brien’s narrative with urgency and suspense, and not least of all, horror. Make no mistake, In the Forest is about as dark and brooding as a book can get.

Just as O’Brien introduces us to Eily in the book’s opening pages, she also wastes no time introducing us to Eily’s killer, a youth she fittingly calls, with more than a nod to the Book of Genesis, Michen O’Kane, dubbed “the Kinderschreck” by a German man from whom he stole a gun at the tender age of ten:

The Kinderschreck. That’s what the German man called him when he stole the gun. Before that he was Michen, after a saint, and then Mich, his mother’s pet, and then Boy, when he went to the place, and then Child, when Father Damien had him helping with the flowers and the cruets in the sacristy, and then K, short for O’Kane, when his hoodlum times began.

In the Forest achieves even greater intensity as it follows Michen O’Kane from his genesis as the apple of his mother’s eye to his horrifying, though not surprising, descent into madness. And threaded through O’Brien’s remarkable and seamless narrative are the voices of the townspeople, the villagers, people who passively refuse to help Eily recognize the danger she’s courting during her exchanges with Michen O’Kane. Michen, monster though he’s become is, after all, “one of them,” while Eily, though filled-to-overflowing with a sweetness born only of lack of familiarity with the evil of the world, is a stranger, a gypsy, a “Johnny-come-lately,” who now occupies Michen’s dilapidated former home in this closed and clannish community. O’Kane, the townspeople rationalize, is “one of their own sons come out of the their soil, their own flesh and blood, gone amok.” The townspeople are loathe to punish O’Kane, lest they see their own hand in the formation of evil. “Deep down we believe (O’Kane) has been sent by God, as punishment against us.” Michen O’Kane, though he was a psychotic killer with no sense of right or wrong, was one of theirs. Eily Ryan, though good - some would say too good - was not. O’Brien describes it like this:

The sun broke into the showers and lit them with a rainbowed radiance, and the showers carried on, festive, larky, bluing the road and spattering watery diamonds on the plastic bags around the silage and on the top bars of iron gateways. The sky was pink and lilac and powder blue; stone walls and patchwork fields, then more ragged undulating country, hazels, poplars, forts of oaks, hilly mounds. O’Kane country.

It might be O’Kane country, but Cloosh Wood, at least, after the murders, had changed:

The same woods, that filtered green, the constant leafy murmur, and yet not the same, no longer the harmless place it once was, marked now as a human can be marked by its violation, its wood memory, the habitation of their frightful pilgrimage, their hapless cries; three bodies soon to be wrapped in plastic and brought down to the waiting hearses.

O’Brien is truly a literary daughter of Joyce and of Faulkner, a descendant of whom both Joyce and Faulkner would be most proud. Her pure stream-of-consciousness prose is lyrical, tragic, bleak, soaring, poetic, seamless, transcendent. She transports her reader from the printed page to Cloosh Wood, itself. This is a book I loved to read for the language alone, as much as for O’Brien’s insight into what might have actually taken place in County Clare. Although In the Forest is breathtakingly and gracefully told, it is a book that is unremittingly bleak and never flinches from its look straight into the face of evil.

Although Edna O’Brien hasn’t lived in Ireland for years, her soul, as is quite obvious from a reading of In the Forest, remains Irish to its core. Living in self-imposed exile in London, O’Brien, herself, has said, “Irish? In truth I would not want to be anything else.” Despite this, O’Brien refuses to sugar-coat her country’s sins, though she does understand why her countrymen may seem to turn a blind eye. The murders in Cloosh Wood, says O’Brien “...had opened wounds that were too deep, too shocking, too hurtful; it had been a human hemorrhaging and the country was depleted from it.”

As for Eily Ryan and her child, and Father John, as well as Michen O’Kane, “Magic,” writes Edna O’Brien, at the end of In the Forest “follows only the few.”

5/5

Recommended: To those who love highly literary fiction and can tolerate stream-of-consciousness prose and a slow paced narrative. This is a lyrically and breathtakingly gorgeous book, but it’s also bleak, and it never flinches in its look straight into the face of madness.

Today in Literary History - A Visit From St. Nicholas is Published


On December 23, 1823, the Christmas classic, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) was published anonymously in the Troy, New York “Sentinel.” It wasn’t until twenty years had gone by that Clement C. Moore claimed and was accorded authorship. Recent research by forensic literary critic, Don Foster, the man who correctly identified the author of Primary Colors, has cast Moore’s authorship in doubt, however.

Clement Moore was a strait-laced biblical scholar, a man who was, by nature, stern, harsh, and dour. In Author Unknown, Foster’s collection of literary whodunits, published in 2000, he offers much evidence that Moore was not the author of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and that the true author was Henry Livingston, Jr.

Foster gives much of the “sleuthing credit” to Mary Van Deusen, who told Foster many stories of the Livingston children enjoying fireside readings of the now-famous poem at least fifteen years before its first newspaper publication, and Van Deusen also provided Foster with other Livingston lines, which, when compared with lines from “Moore’s” work, seem to indicate that Van Deusen and Foster are right.

We do know Moore wrote the following lines:

To me 'tis giv'n your virtue to secure
From custom's force and pleasure's dangerous lure.
For if, regardless of my friendly voice,
In Fashion's gaudy scenes your heart rejoice,
Dire punishments shall fall upon your head:
Disgust, and fretfulness, and secret dread....

And we know the following lines are typical of Livingston:

Such Gadding – such ambling – such jaunting about!
To tea with Miss Nancy – to sweet Willy's rout,
New Parties at coffee – then parties at wine,
Next day all the world with the Major will dine!
Then bounce all hands to Fishkill must go in a clutter
To guzzle bohea, and destroy bread and butter....

Foster also says that Moore checked to make sure no one else was going to claim authorship of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” before he did, and he speculates that Moore is actually the author of yet another, lesser known Christmas classic, “Old Santeclaus,” which is sometimes titled, “The Children’s Friend.” “Old Santeclaus” first appeared in print in 1821, two years before “A Visit From St. Nicholas, in a sixteen page publication that contains the first drawings of the jolly, fat man we know as “Santa” today. (Prior to that time, “Santa” was known as “Father Christmas” or “St. Nicholas” and in the European tradition, especially the German, he was a skinny, ill-fed, old man who lived in the forest.

"Old Santeclaus" begins jolly enough, but it soon takes a darker turn:

...Through many houses he has been,
And various beds and stockings seen;
Some, white as snow, and neatly mended,
Others, that seemed for pigs intended.

Where e'er I found good girls or boys,
That hated quarrels, strife and noise,
I left an apple, or a tart,
Or wooden gun, or painted cart.

To some I gave a pretty doll,
To some a peg-top, or a ball;
No crackers, cannons, squibs, or rockets,
To blow their eyes up, or their pockets.

No drums to stun their Mother's ear,
Nor swords to make their sisters fear;
But pretty books to store their mind
With knowledge of each various kind.

But where I found the children naughty,
In manners rude, in temper haughty,
Thankless to parents, liars, swearers,
Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers,

I left a long, black, birchen rod,
Such as the dread command of God
Directs a Parent's hand to use
When virtue's path his sons refuse.

Seth Kaller is the man who currently owns the earliest known Moore manuscript of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and he does not agree with Foster. We leave it to you to make up your own mind:

http://www.lohud.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061201/CUSTOM05/612010340/1204

And whatever you decide, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Today in Literary History - George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) Dies in London, England


On December 22, 1889, English novelist, Mary Anne Evans, better known as George Eliot, died in Chelsea, London, England at the age of sixty-one.

Evans was born on November 22, 1819 at South Farm, Aubury Hall, Nuneaton, Warwickshire, England, the third child of Robert Evans and Christiana Pearson Evans.

As a young girl, Evans showed great intelligence and was very interested in reading. Because of her lack of physical beauty, her family thought her chances of marriage would be slim, and so her father invested in an education for her that was not normally accorded to females of that period, allowing her to attend formal schools from the ages of five to sixteen.

After age sixteen, Evans received little formal education, but because her father was manager of an estate farm, Evans was allowed access to the estate’s library, which she utilized in her continuing self-education and in broadening the scope of her learning. Her classical education had left its indelible mark, however. Christopher Stray has observed that “George Eliot’s novels draw heavily on Greek literature, and her themes are often influenced by Greek tragedy.”

Evans’ frequent visits to the estate also allowed her to observe and reflect on the contrast between the wealth in which the local landowner lived and the lives of the much poorer persons who lived and worked on the estate. As a result, the differences in these two social strata would often appear in her books.

Another important influence in the early life of Mary Anne Evans was religion. She was brought up within a narrow low church Anglican family, but at the same time, the Midlands was an area with a large and growing number of religious dissenters.

In 1836, Evans’ mother died, and Evans, who was then sixteen returned from school in Coventry to act as housekeeper for her family, though she kept in close contact with her tutor, Maria Lewis, an evangelical. When she was twenty-one, Evans’ brother, Isaac married and took over the family home, so Evans and her father moved to Foleshill, near Coventry. This move allowed Evans to be exposed to a new society and many new influences, the most notable being Charles and Cora Bray, wealthy manufacturers and philanthropists, who had a great interest in both education and free thinking, especially where religion was concerned. Through her friendship with the Brays, Evans was introduced to Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A road in Coventry, George Eliot Road, was named after her in Foleshill.

Through her association with the Brays and their friends, Evans eventually lost her Anglican faith, causing a deep rift between her and her father, though out of respect for him, she continued to attend church for years and also kept house for him until his death in 1849, when she was thirty. Five days after her father’s death, Evans traveled to Switzerland with the Brays and made the decision to remain in Geneva alone, finally settling on the Rue de Channoines (now the Rue de la Pelisserie) with François and Juliet d’Albert Durade, where she read and took long walks. A plaque there commemorates her stay.

In 1850, Evans returned to England and moved to London. Her intention was to become a writer under the name “Marian Evans.” She stayed at the home of John Chapman, a radical publisher, who had only recently purchased the left wing journal “The Westminster Review.” Evans became its assistant editor in 1851, contributing essays and reviews until the time of the dissolution of her arrangement with Chapman in early 1854. Although women writers were not uncommon, it was uncommon for one to hold such an exalted position as head of a literary enterprise, and the mere sight of any woman mixing with the predominantly male society of London was highly unorthodox and sometimes downright scandalous. Although intelligent and clear-minded, this situation often caused Evans to feel sensitive, depressed, and filled with self-doubt. In addition, her lack of physical beauty caused her to form several unreciprocated emotional attachments, including one to the married Chapman and another to Herbert Spencer. Indeed, her appearance seemed at times to cause quite a stir. Henry James said that the usual “plain” would not suffice to describe her, and thought her face “magnificently ugly – deliciously hideous.” But James also saw her novels as “deep, masterly pictures of the manifold life of man.”

In 1851, the philosopher and critic, George Henry Lewes met Mary Anne Evans. By 1854 the two had decided to live together. Lewes was married, but he and his wife, Agnes Jervis considered their marriage to be an “open” one, and in addition to the three children they had together, Jervis, with Lewes’ blessing, had several by other men.

In July 1854, Lewes and Evans traveled to Weimar and Berlin, Germany together for literary research. While away from England, Evans wrote essays and worked on her own translation of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics, which she completed in 1856, but which was not published during her lifetime.

Lewes, who for complex reasons could not obtain a divorce from Jervis, and Evans considered themselves “married,” and the trip to Germany was like a honeymoon for them. Evans even began referring to herself as “Marian Evans Lewes” and referring to Lewes as her “husband.” Although it was common for men and women in Victorian society to have affairs (Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Charles Bray, John Chapman, Friederich Engels and many others did), what made Evans’ and Lewes’ relationship different and scandalous was their open admission of it.

While she was still editing the “The Westminster Review,” Evans had made the firm decision to become a novelist. In one of her last essays written for that publication, Evans criticized the trivial and ridiculous plots of contemporary women’s fiction and praised the realism of novels written in Europe at the time. Her love of realistic fiction would remain clear throughout all her subsequent writings. At this time, she also adopted a new nom de plume – George Eliot. She chose a masculine name partly to distance herself from the female writers of “silly” novels, and partly to hide her tricky marital and home situation.

In 1859, when she was thirty-nine, Amos Barton, the first of the Scenes of Clerical Life, was published in “Blackwood’s Magazine” and was well received. Evans’ first complete novel, Adam Bede, was published in 1859, and was an instant success, though it prompted much interest in who this new author could be. When a pretender, Joseph Liggins, claimed to be the author, the real George Eliot stepped forward. The revelations about Evans’ personal life shocked many, but they did not affect her popularity as a novelist. In fact, Evans’ relationship with Lewes had given her the encouragement and stability that she needed to write fiction, though it would be some time before the two of them would be accepted into polite society. Acceptance finally came in 1877 when both Evans and Lewes were introduced to Princess Louise, one of the daughters of Queen Victoria and an avid reader of the novels of George Eliot. By this time, Evans and Lewes had a home in upscale Regent’s Park staffed by four servants, and London “high society” lined up for invitations to their “Sunday At Home” gatherings.

Within a year of completing Adam Bede, Eliot finished The Mill on the Floss. She inscribed the book: “To my beloved husband, George Henry Lewes, I give this MS. of my third book, written in the sixth year of our life together, at Holly Lodge, South Field, Wandsworth, and finished 21 March 1860.”

Evans’ last novel was Daniel Deronda, published in 1876. After its publication, she and Lewes moved to Witley, Surrey, however, by that time, Lewes’ health was failing, and he died two years later on November 30, 1878. Evans spent the next two years editing Lewes’ final work, Life and Mind for publication, and she found solace with John Walter Cross, an American banker whose mother had recently died.

On May 16, 1880, Mary Anne Evans, aka George Eliot, again created controversy when she married Cross, a man twenty years younger than she. This legal marriage pleased her brother, Isaac, though, who had broken off relations with his sister when she began living with Lewes. Unfortunately, John Cross was an unstable young man, and he jumped or fell from the hotel room he was sharing with his wife into Venice’s Grand Canal during their honeymoon. He survived his fall, and the two returned to England, moving into a new home in Chelsea. Evans soon fell ill with a throat infection, and this, coupled with the kidney disease that had afflicted her for the past few years, led to her death on December 22, 1880.

Evans was not buried in Westminster Abbey because of her denial of the Christian faith and her “irregular” life with Lewes, though both Evans and Lewes had remained monogamous throughout their relationship. Instead, she was interred in Highgate Cemetery (East), Highgate, London, in an area reserved for religious dissenters and agnostics, next to George Henry Lewes. In 1980, on the centenary of her death, a memorial stone was established for her in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner.

Readers in the Victorian era particularly praised Evans’ books for their depictions of rural society. Evans shared with Wordsworth the belief that there was much of interest and importance in the mundane details of ordinary country lives. Evans did not, however, confine herself to writing about her country roots. Romola was a historical novel set in 15th century Florence and touched on the lives of several persons who had actually lived during that period. In The Spanish Gypsy, Evans made a foray into verse, though the initial popularity of that work has not survived to the present day. Even her publisher found it rather ponderous and asked her if she didn’t happen to have something “a little more lighthearted.”

The religious elements in her fiction owe much to her Anglican upbringing. The experiences of Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss share many similarities with those of Mary Anne Evans. When Silas Marner, in the novel, Silas Marner, is persuaded that his alienation from the church will also mean his alienation from society, Evans’ life is again paralleled.

Evans, while reveling in the praise for her novels, was not comfortable with being idolized herself. One friend remembers her saying, “I am so tired of being set on a pedestal and expected to vent wisdom.”

In the 20th century, Evans was championed by a new breed of critics. The American poet, Emily Dickinson wrote, “What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?” Perhaps Evans’ greatest champion, however, was Virginia Woolf, who called Evans’ masterpiece, Middlemarch, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Woolf said, regarding Evans, that she was “a memorable figure, inordinately praised and shrinking from her fame, despondent, reserved, shuddering back into the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might be, justification....” For Woolf, Evans was a woman “with every obstacle against her – sex and health and convention.” As she had to battle fame too, “we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.”

Monday, December 20, 2010

Writing Tips - How To Finish Your Novel When You Don't Think You Can


Most people who begin novels abandon them before they finish even half of their first draft. The problem is, a novel is usually between 90,000 and 150,000 words, and no one can write that many words in a day or two. (If you can, please leave a comment and let me know how you do it because I would like to do it, too.) Novels take a lot of work. It’s tough pulling “something from nothing” and getting that first draft down on paper. Then, if you’re really interested in selling and maybe, just maybe, making the bestseller list some day, you’ve got to revise. (No, you don’t “maybe” have to revise to make the bestseller list; you “have” to revise. It’s not an option; it's a necessity.) But for now, let’s forget about revision and concentrate on making it from that great opening sentence you worked so hard to craft to “The End.”

Know how your novel ends. First, and most important, I think, is to know how your novel ends. I’m always amazed at the number of people who don’t know how their novel will end. Who say they’ll “let the characters write it” or they’ll “know how it ends when they get there.” The truth is, you won’t, and thinking you will is nothing more than trusting blind luck. If you begin writing without knowing how your novel ends, you’ll write yourself into a corner and then write a far less-than-satisfying ending, or, more likely, you’ll end up abandoning your book all together. And you do know your characters aren’t going to write the book for you, don’t you? If you didn’t, you do now. You created those characters. They aren’t real people. You decide what they do, what they say, how they act and react, etc. Don’t try to shove the responsibility off on them. Believe me, they won’t take it. So, how do you deal with this? You write the ending first. Some people find it helps to actually write the end before anything else, especially if they’re writing a complex, complicated novel with multiple plot strands.

Outline, outline, outline. I’ve never actually written my ending first, but I do outline extensively, so I know how I’m going to get from my first sentence to my last. I know what my ending is going to be. I have my road map, and while I may take a detour down a side road now and then, even a surprising detour, I still have my destination firmly in mind.

I know. So many writers balk at using an outline. They say it makes the process of writing too mechanical, and it robs them of their creativity. I know people who do write books without outlining, but I don’t know of one who ever made the bestseller list without doing so. And books written without an outline tend to be messy. The characters tend to act “out of character” at times, due, no doubt, because the author didn’t take the time to really get to know them.

If outlines are anathema to you, think of them like a skeleton. We couldn’t exist without our skeleton, but our skeleton isn’t the sole determiner of how we look. We’re fleshed out with, well, flesh, and hair, and nails, and clothing, and all sorts of things. Use your outline as a guide only, something to keep you on track and keep you writing, always with that satisfying destination in mind, and know you're going to be fleshing out your narrative - a lot - and taking a few side trips along the way.

Don’t force yourself to stick rigidly to your outline. And now, it’s going to seem like I’m contradicting myself, though really, I’m not. Don’t force yourself to stick rigidly to your outline. Breathe. Have fun while you’re writing. Yes, your writing needs to show the assurance and control that come from outlining, but you also have an imagination, a subconscious mind that tries to act in your best interest – well, most of the time. While your characters aren’t going to write your book for you, your subconscious mind, aka, your imagination, is going to take off down some side roads, and it would behoove you to at least check them out. While I consider outlining essential, those writers who follow an outline slavishly will find their writing dry and lacking in the honest emotion that really pulls a reader in. No, their books won’t be messy like the books of those who never outline, but they’ll be over-controlled to the point that they’ll have all the life and spontaneity sucked out of them.

Know your characters. Remember those character sketches you should have done prior to even beginning your novel? The ones you thought were so unnecessary? Well, they weren’t. Unnecessary, that is. If you know your characters, you’re going to know how they’d act and react. The “filling in” of scenes is going to become a lot easier. When tragedy strikes a mother and a father, and they lose their only child, how is each parent going to react? Sure, they’re both going to be devastated. Or are they? Not every parent is, and even if they are, people show grief and devastation in far different ways. Some people hold everything inside, while others let everything out, and then there are all those shades of gray in between. Will your literary parent get drunk? Let the housework go? Begin to live in a fantasy world? Take off for parts unknown, needing a complete change of scene? Deny that the loss ever happened? As the writer, you have to know, and if you know, the writing is going to come much, much easier to you, believe me, and it’s going to be far more believable and honest to your readers. (This holds true for fantasy and science fiction as well, where the worlds you create have their own rules.)

Create characters you enjoy spending time with. This doesn’t mean you have to create only likable characters. A lot of people – a huge amount of people – enjoy spending time with Hannibal Lecter. This doesn’t mean they like or admire him or even want to be in the same room with him. It does mean he’s fascinating to them – in a macabre sort of way. In my online book group, a lot of people love spending time with Lisbeth Salander, the female lead in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling “Millennium Trilogy,” though I’ll bet most wouldn’t want to have lunch with her. Lisbeth isn’t as evil and twisted as Hannibal Lecter, but she’s not someone I’d want anyone to idolize or emulate. Lisbeth is a rebel, who lives by her own moral code, her own set of rules. She’s interesting, and at times, she’s sympathetic, but she’s not wholly likable, however, the trilogy really couldn’t survive without her. And just look at Scarlet O’Hara. She has a plethora of faults. She’s jealous, petty, vain, rebellious, and vindictive. And...she’s totally fascinating.

Look at it this way: We don’t use the same criteria for choosing story characters we like as we do in choosing friends we want to spend time with. Frankly, I’d be terrified to spend time with Hannibal Lecter, but I did find myself fascinated by him in The Silence of the Lambs. (And by Clarice Starling as well; just as we don’t have to like people to find them interesting, we don’t have to dislike them, either. I enjoy spending time with Miss Marple, and I don’t know who could dislike her.)

Throw the bores out with the bathwater. Look at your cast of characters now. (And if you don’t have one, get busy creating one.) If any of your characters are boring, get rid of them now, while the getting’s good. If you can’t get rid of them because they’re central to the unfolding of your plot, for example, then find a way to make them interesting. I know you can. Think about that part of their lives that they live in secret. Think about the things they do – or think about – that they’d never think of telling anyone else. Then, let your reader know about those things.

Allow yourself to write one or two sentences of the scenes you really love. But only one or two sentences – absolutely no more. And make sure these “favorite scenes,” these “sweet indulgences” are spread out through your book, from beginning to end. This is kind of like the candy bar you allow yourself at the end of the day, or the steaming mug of hot chocolate, or the latest confection from Starbucks, or, for me, a large banana smoothie. These are the scenes you’re just itching to write. If you allow yourself to write the opening one or two sentences, then you just might be able to sail through the rest of your book in your desire to get to them and finish them. (I know there have been nights when I couldn’t sleep, but I’d force sleep to come by saying, “The sooner I get to sleep, the sooner I'll get my banana smoothie for breakfast.” I know morning won’t really come any sooner, but if I’m sleeping, it’ll seem like it does.)

The faster you write the first third (or fourth, or fifth, etc.) of your book, the sooner you’ll get to write that wonderful scene where the villainess reveals a big secret that causes the sympathetic character to commit suicide in Italy, the scene you just can’t wait to write. Then, hopefully, you’ll have another burst of writing, speeding to your next “sweet indulgence” and on and on to the end.

Resist the urge to edit as you write. This is easy for some writers and nearly impossible for others, but I think it’s necessary to master. I’m one of those writers who has the urge to edit as she writes. In my current novel-in-progress, I’ve rewritten the Prologue seven or eight times already, and I still find myself wanting to fiddle with it and make it better. I changed a few sentences around today. (I do congratulate myself on the fact that I share at least one quality with the great Gustave Flaubert.) I finally put the Prologue aside and moved into Chapter One proper, but as soon as I write a sentence that I feel could be written more elegantly, I want to stop and change it. It’s hard to resist doing so, but I force myself to push on, and you have to as well. There will be ample time for editing and revising and polishing later, and we all need to do all three of those things after – but only after – we have our first draft written.

Write what you love. Right now, novels featuring vampires are en vogue. So is the paranormal. There’s always a market for genre romance and young adult novels. Elizabeth Kostova had great luck with her tale of Dracula (and her debut novel), The Historian, which sold at auction in two days for more than two million. So I guess you should write a novel about Dracula, too, right? Or at least about a vampire? No, you shouldn’t. Not unless you really want to write a vampire tale. Not unless you really love to write vampire tales. Remember, Kathryn Stockett has also had great success with her debut novel, The Help, and it doesn’t feature anything even remotely like a vampire or anything paranormal. It’s a story of a wealthy, white college graduate and her relationship with black servants in 1960s Mississippi.

If you’re going to write, you need to write what you love and what you enjoy writing (and reading), not what you think will sell. In truth, no one really knows what’s going to be the next big seller in fiction. The above-mentioned book, The Help, was turned down for five years, and now it’s been on the bestseller list for at least one year, maybe longer, and it's beloved by many. No one could have predicted its phenomenal success. Had anyone been able to, it wouldn't have taken Ms. Stockett's agent so long to sell the book.

I once decided I’d write mysteries – cozies – a whole series, which I love to read, and get filthy rich in the doing. But mysteries and puzzles don’t come easily to me, even though I do love to read them. I ended up figuratively banging my head against a wall more than I did writing, and I never did finish a mystery I thought worthy of sending out.

Write like you (should) marry – for love, not money. All writers need to write the following on a Post-It and keep it in full view on their desk: You will never find a harder way to make “easy money” than writing a novel. I don’t say that to be discouraging, but many very, very good novels don’t sell for a variety of reasons. The only reason anyone should write is because he or she loves writing and is happier when he's writing than when he's not.

Though I do love to read mysteries, my preferred book is the highly literary, i.e., character driven novel. And that’s also what I love to write. It’s the kind of manuscript I’ll actually finish and have fun doing so. (Okay, maybe not fun, but at least enjoyment.) So, write what you love. Don’t worry about selling or the money you might make. Not at this point. Just focus on getting your manuscript as polished and as “finished” as possible.

I hope the above will help aspiring novelists having trouble getting their novel from its first sentence to “The End,” and I hope it will also make the experience of writing more enjoyable and exciting. Let me know. Now I’m going back and fiddle with my Prologue. Or, maybe not.

Today in Literary History - Lady Chatterley's Lover is Banned in the United States


On December 20, 1929, D.H. Lawrence’s controversial novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned in the United States. Although the US was only one of many countries banning the book until the landmark obscenity trials of 1959 (US) and 1960 (Britain), for Lawrence, the US ban was the most devastating.

From the beginning, of course, Lawrence knew that no mainstream publisher would touch his manuscript. (The first edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in Florence, Italy in 1928.) The lack of a traditional publisher didn’t bother Lawrence, though he did express disappointment when even Sylvia Beach, who had become the champion of James Joyce with her first edition of Ulysses a decade earlier, declined the opportunity to publish Lady Chatterley’s Lover, even going so far as to declare the book a “sermon on the mount of Venus.”

Lawrence subsequently published the book himself, in a series of private, signed editions that were sold by subscription only, through Inky Stephensen’s Mandrake Press. Though these “subscription only” editions were banned in many countries, the sales were good, and Lawrence made a good profit, which he tuned into more profit through his investments on Wall Street, though he said he was plagued by “policemen, prudes and swindlers.”

With the sales of the “subscription only” edition, Lawrence gave up his half-hearted attempts to sell a watered-down version for traditional publishing and wider distribution. “I somehow didn’t get on very well with the expurgation,” Lawrence wrote to Knopf Publishing. “I somehow went colorblind, and couldn’t tell purple from pink.”

Lawrence also had the money to return permanently to his ranch in New Mexico, which he consider a “last ditch” effort to stem his worsening tuberculosis – though Lawrence would always deny he was afflicted with that particular malady. “I do really and firmly believe, though,” he wrote to a friend, “that it’s Europe that has made me so ill.... Anyhow in New Mexico the sun and air are alive, let man be what he may.”

Despite Lawrence’s view that the New Mexico air would prove so healthful, it was the US ban that dashed all of his hopes and finally caused his health to collapse. For some time, his subscription orders to the US had been mysteriously disappearing in the mail, and finally he, too, came to believe he was not welcome in that country when his application for immigration was buried permanently at the bottom of a stack of others.

Finally, Lawrence agreed to go to a sanatorium in Italy – still refusing to admit to tuberculosis – and still poring over timetables and schedules for Atlantic crossings to the United States and the port of New York.

The last photograph of D.H. Lawrence was taken on March 2, 1930, the day of his death. He weighed eighty-five pounds and is in bed, reading a book about the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World.

In 1930, US Senator Bronson Cutting proposed an amendment to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, which was then being debated, ending the practice of having US Customs censor allegedly obscene books imported from other countries to the United States. Senator Reed Smoot vigorously opposed such an amendment, however, and even threatened to read passages of banned and imported books in front of the Senate. Although Smoot never followed through on this threat, he did include Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an example of an obscene book that must not reach the general reading public. Smoot, himself declared, “I’ve not taken ten minutes on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, outside of looking at its opening pages. It is most damnable! It is written by a man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would obscure even the darkness of hell!”

Lady Chatterley’s Lover was one of a trio of books (the other two being Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill) on which the ban was fought and subsequently overturned in court with the assistance of lawyer Charles Rembar. It was then published in the United States by Grove Press, however prior to that time, it had been published in the US by Frances Steloff at the Gotham Book Mart in defiance of the ban.

When the full, uncensored edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published by Penguin Books in Britain in 1960, the trial of Penguin under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 was a major event, followed closely by the public and a test of Britain’s new obscenity laws. The Act, introduced by Roy Jenkins, had made it possible for publishers to escape conviction if they could show that a controversial work was of literary merit. The main objections to Lady Chatterley’s Lover were to the words used, rather than the adulterous situation.

Various academics, critics, and experts were called as witnesses in the trial, including E.M. Forster, Helen Gardner, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and Norman St. John-Stevas. The verdict, delivered on November 2, 1960 was “not guilty” and, when the chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked if Lady Chatterley were “the kind of book you would wish your wife or servants to read,” the prosecution was ridiculed for being out of touch with the changing social norms.

The Penguin second edition, published in 1961, contains a publisher’s dedication that reads: “For having published this book, Penguin Books were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959 at the Old Bailey in London from 20 October to 2 November 1960. This edition is therefore dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ and thus made D.H. Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.”

Of course today, most well read persons have read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and consider it “no big deal” (and certainly not Lawrence’s masterpiece, by any means) and it’s readily available through any bookstore.

If you're new to Lawrence and want to read one of his works, I wouldn't recommend Lady Chatterley's Lover, but Sons and Lovers, instead. Sons and Lovers (or the more exuberant Women in Love) is a vastly superior book, and is generally considered to be Lawrence's masterpiece. Lawrence was also a master of the short story, and you can find many of his short stories online.