Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, February 25, 2011

Book Review - Old Filth by Jane Gardem

Jane Gardam is not only one of England’s best writers, she one of literature’s best writers. It’s a mystery to me why her books, which are so popular in Britain, are, for the most part, ignored in the US. She’s won scores of literary awards, including the Whitbread for The Hollow Land and Queen of the Tambourine, and her novel, God on the Rocks was shortlisted for the Booker. True, she draws her material from the manners and one-time class system of Britain, and a way of life that’s foreign to most Americans. But other writers, most notably, Anita Brookner, draw from the same material, and they are just as popular on this side of the Atlantic as in their own homeland. If there’s any fairness in life and in literature, and unfortunately, I don’t believe there is, Gardam’s fifteenth novel (I think it's her fifteenth), and no doubt her masterpiece, Old Filth, should have made her name a household word in the US as well.

Don’t let the title throw you or put you off this marvelous book. “Old Filth” simply means “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong,” and it’s the nickname the legal profession bestowed upon Sir Edward Feathers early in his career. And telling you this is not a spoiler since Gardam reveals the meaning of “Old Filth” on the very first page of her extraordinary novel.

Sir Edward, who was, according to Gardam, inspired in part by the life of Rudyard Kipling, is an orphan of the Raj Empire. Kipling was born in India, but sent “home” to Britain when he was seven, and boarded with a family in Southsea. In the six years he lived there, Kipling wrote, he endured cruelties that left him half-blind, just as one who has experienced a nervous collapse. In Gardam’s novel, Sir Edward was born in Malaya to a mother who died three days later of puerperal fever. “Eddie” was nearly abandoned completely by his malaria-ridden, alcoholic father, Alistair, who left him to be raised by the daughter of his wet nurse. It was a Baptist missionary who finally persuaded Alistair to send Eddie back to Britain, as was the custom in those days, in order to keep the boy safe from tropical diseases and to ensure he obtained the best education possible. Eddie and two female cousins find no warm welcome in Britain, which is still reeling from WWI, and they end up in Wales, the foster children of the dour Ma and Pa Didds. Gardam tantalizes us until almost the book’s end and withholds a tidbit of information about a devastating event that happened to Sir Edward at Ma and Pa Didds’ home. The wait, however, is worth it, as is everything else in this once-in-a-lifetime book.

We first meet Sir Edward when he’s eighty, a new widower (his wife died while planting tulips) and retired to Dorset. In an opening scene, about one-page long, and presented in dialogue, “Old Filth” is characterized and established as a character by his fellow jurists. Sir Edward has just gotten up from his chair and left his table at the Benchers’ luncheon room in London’s Inner Temple. Several jurists who remain at the table begin to discuss the departing figure, saying he looks familiar. It is the Common Sergeant who knows why. “It was Old Filth,” he says. “Great advocate, judge and – bit of a wit. Said to have invented FILTH – Failed in London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong.” After some random conversation, the other jurists go their way, and the Queen’s Remembrancer returns the conversation to Sir Edward, “But it was good to see the old coelacanth.” To which the Common Sergeant replies, “Yes. Yes, indeed it was. Tell our grandchildren.”

Hmmm, we wonder. So Sir Edward Feathers was someone to talk to one’s grandchildren about. What did he do? And a “coelacanth,” in case you don’t know, is a prehistoric fish, once thought to be extinct. Sir Edward, however, is only eighty! I know eighty-year-olds who run marathons or hike in the Alps. But, back to Gardam’s fabulous book.

After the above opening scene, Gardam delves right into her story and begins to tell us just who “Old Filth” really is and why he’s so interesting to those who know him and those who know “of” him. The chronology of the book moves backward and foreword, detailing “Old Filth’s” very young years in Malaya, his time with Ma and Pa Didds in Wales, how he learned to hide his misery and excel at school, his successes in Hong Kong, his marriage to Betty, his very unlikely late-in-life friendship with fellow lawyer, Terry Veneering, a man Sir Edward hated in his younger years (yes, the name was borrowed from Dickens and Our Mutual Friend, but it’s apt); and finally his retirement in Dorset. Along the way, we find out that Sir Edward was a man of secrets, not so much secrets surrounding others, but secrets surrounding himself and his own inner life. Those who picked up Old Filth thinking it to be a comic novel will find that it is, instead, tragicomic. There are scenes of high hilarity, to be sure, as when Sir Edward tells his late wife’s former lover that Betty had always been “very faithful,” but they are tempered with just as many bittersweet scenes, and the combination of the two make this book one of the most truly human and moving I’ve ever read, and for me, the book establishes Jane Gardam as one of the very best writers in the English language.

If the scene in which Sir Edward books a room in the garish hotel that has replaced “The Old Judges’ Lodging” doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, I think you’re probably immune to tears. When this ramrod-straight, highly disciplined man of the “stiff upper lip” generation sees his wife’s obituary during breakfast he “wept silently behind his hands, sitting in this unknown place,” the only person in the dining room at the time. Rather than shedding only a few discrete tears, Sir Edward weeps on and on. The staff clear the table and change the cloth, saying not a word.

There’s another scene in which Betty Feathers’ “lost” string of pearls is “found” that was, for me, almost as moving as the scene above. The “string of pearls” scene shows what a deft, understated, and wonderful writer Jane Gardam really is. She can handle complex emotions crisply, with very few brushstrokes, so to speak.

It’s obvious that while Sir Edward is, indeed, the very picture of the typical “Raj orphan” in that he, like the other “Raj orphans” doesn’t even know where “home” lies, and, though he had a terrible start in life, he manages to grow and prosper at school and learn the very British way of “keeping a stiff upper lip,” at least on most occasions, he is also, to Gardam’s enormous credit, so much more. Behind that ramrod straight back and stiff upper lip are all the feelings of any other “normal” human being as well as a few emotional horrors that most of us are fortunate enough not to experience.

It is Gardam’s characterization of Sir Edward that lifts Old Filth out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. It’s also what keeps the book from falling into a clich├ęd retelling of the life of a British subject born in the Far East. This tragicomedic book is like no book I’ve ever read before. It’s fresh and original and truly wonderful. Yes, on the surface, Sir Edward is the typical “Raj orphan,” but he is also his own man; his life is a life fully lived, and the appellation “Raj orphan” doesn’t begin to do him justice. As we read on, we see that it is, instead, a grave disservice, for “Old Filth” is not the elderly, desiccated carnival caricature one might expect, and the reader quickly comes to care very much about Sir Edward Feathers and his life. Gardam is well known for marrying quirky eccentricity and psychological authenticity, but nowhere has she done it better than in the character of “Old Filth.”

Gardam unfolds the life of Sir Edward in beautiful scenes that really come to life. (Gardam says this is “to flick open shutters on the past,” which is much more poetic than what I wrote.) When she writes of the “molten-silver disc of the Indian Ocean beneath a beating sky,” we really see the ocean and feel the sun and heat; when she tells us about the time Sir Edward ate thirty-seven bananas on a Freetown beach while waiting for a boat to take him to Singapore during the war, our own stomachs begin to feel the weight of all those bananas, just as Sir Edward’s did. In short, Gardam’s portrait of Sir Edward is rich and full and robust and enormously sympathetic.

Old Filth is also a powerful indictment of Imperial Britain, the “stiff upper lip” attitude, and those parents who made “Raj orphans” out of their children. “They say it suits some,” says one of Sir Edward’s cousins, one of those “Raj orphans” who was sent to Wales with Sir Edward. “They come out fizzing and yelling, ‘I didn’t need parents,’ and waving the red, white and blue. Snooty for life. But we’re all touched, one way or another.”

It’s clear Sir Edward has been touched. It’s also clear that he needed his parents, or someone who would stand in for them. For all of Sir Edward’s “stiff upper lip,” he’s remains, to the very end, a babe-in-arms.


Recommended: Definitely. Readers will love Old Filth, and those who want to be writers need to read the work of Jane Gardam. She’s nothing less than extraordinary.

Note: Edited to change "Gardem" to the proper "Gardam." I really have no excuse for misspelling an author's name, especially an author whose work I love. Thank you to the reader who pointed it out to me.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Review - Walk the Blue Fields by Claire Keegan

One of the best new writers to come along in decades is the Irish writer, Claire Keegan, who hails from County Wicklow. Although Keegan, herself cites the American writer, Flannery O’Conner as one of her personal favorites and one of her influences, Keegan’s work bears more resemblance to Chekhov, and to her fellow Irishmen, John McGahern and William Trevor. Dedicated to the short story form, Keegan’s story, “Foster” was chosen the “Best of the Year” by the “New Yorker” and is now available from online booksellers in an extended form. Keegan burst onto the literary scene with the volume of short stories titled, Antarctica, which won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and she followed that with another called Walk the Blue Fields. I think anyone who loves either Chekhov or William Trevor is going to love Walk the Blue Fields because, as already stated, the three authors – Chekhov, Trevor, and Keegan – do share much in common.

Like Trevor, Keegan, at least in this volume, writes of characters who are haunted by the past, a past that’s followed them into their present and will no doubt continue to follow them into their future. The stories revolve around people who will be familiar to readers of Irish fiction: strong, independent, quirky women; controlling, domineering men; priests, those shamed and those not; people who are not happy, but who struggle to do their best and are resigned to their fate.

I think Keegan differs from Trevor in that many of her stories spring from Irish folktales or myth. Trevor is definitely based in reality. In Walk the Blue Fields, the best example of a story that springs from myth would be the story titled “Night of the Quicken Trees,” which is also one of the best stories in the volume. The story revolves around an eccentric and damaged woman, who moves into a dead priest’s house, burns all his furniture, urinates on the grass, and subsequently embarks on a strange adventure with the strange bachelor who lives next door, a bachelor who sleeps with his pet goat. The story is quintessentially Irish, containing darkness, quirky humor, resignation, and mystery.

Another outstanding story is “The Forester’s Daughter,” a story of a woman who marries Deegan, a selfish, emotionally bereft man she does not love, a man who has “little time to dwell on things,” in the hope that she will come to love him. Love, however, rarely works that way, and Martha, “the forester’s daughter” comes to realize the weight of her mistake one day when her husband castigates her for wasting “my money on roses.” Martha, however, has her revenge, and we feel it coming, we realize its inevitability, yet we're still a little surprised when it happens.

“Dark Horses” revolves around the character of Brady, a man who has but one thing on his mind: he wants his lady back. Although this story is filled with finely wrought descriptions of Irish life and Brady is a well rounded, fully fleshed out character, the story itself never quite lives up to the ominous promises it makes. I wish it had.

My favorite story was the title story, "Walk the Blue Fields," which center on a priest who marries the woman he once loved to another man. Unable to remain at the wedding dinner, the priest walks across the fields and finds redemption and healing in the most unlikely of places. "Walk the Blue Fields" is a quiet, unassuming story that is beautifully told.

Like Anton Chekhov, and like William Trevor before her, Claire Keegan has an innate ability to capture the pathos of an entire nation and nationality in a few pages of a short story. However, Trevor, who has been called the “Irish Chekhov,” and Keegan both differ from Chekhov in some very important ways. None of their characters possess the melodrama and puffed up self-importance so often seen in Chekhov’s. Trevor’s and Keegan’s characters are so resigned to their misery that they would never think of seeking answers to their dilemmas the way Chekhov’s characters so often do. In this, they resemble more the characters of Thomas Hardy. I do think Keegan’s pacing is reminiscent of Chekhov. There’s nothing hurried in her stories; everything happens in its own time, at just the right moment, and not a moment too soon.

Also like Chekhov – and like Trevor – Keegan keeps her narrators at arm’s distance from the reader. This would be a fault in some novels and short stories, but with Keegan’s material, it works wonderfully. In fact, it lends an air of authenticity to the stories. In many ways, it allows Ireland, itself to be the star. You get the feeling that while these stories embrace universal themes, they couldn’t have taken place any where else in the world but in Ireland.

The stories in Walk the Blue Fields are bleak, but they are gentler and more delicate than those in Keegan’s previous collection, Antarctica, and even though Keegan cites Flannery O’Conner as one of the writers who influenced her own writing, these stories are definitely gentler than anything “O’Conner ever wrote. Walk the Blue Fields has a narrower range than Antarctica does, and all to the good, I think. Each story takes place in a single house, a single car, a few fields, etc., yet I didn’t get any sense of claustrophobia in these stories, so universal are the themes.

Like O’Conner, though, Keegan writes of rural worlds and rural people. The men are generally silent, the women wild and untamed. Bad marriages abound, as do errant children. And all of Keegan’s characters seem to have, in one way or another, a deep attachment to the land.

Keegan’s themes – infidelity, regret, grace, loss – have a timeless quality about them. The events she writes about could have taken place fifty, even one hundred or two hundred years ago. And where O’Conner’s characters were drawn in bold, vivid colors, Keegan’s are, like the tragedy that befalls their lives, delicately nuanced, something I thought suited her subject matter perfectly.

Keegan’s prose is both spare and elegant. You won’t find any fancy tricks here or verbal pyrotechnics. Every word seems to have been carefully and meticulously chosen, each one building on the one before to give us a truly visceral snapshot of rural Ireland. The spareness of Keegan’s prose mirrors the spare lives her characters lead. With few exceptions, these are people who ask for no more than “just enough.”

The stories contained in Walk the Blue Fields are beautiful stories. They are achingly painful and achingly beautiful, and they resonate with life. They reach into the reader’s soul and pull his or her emotions out with them. And before you think these stories might be too bleak, Keegan does offer a slight possibility of hope in each of them. A flight ticket; a chance encounter with a Chinaman; a walk across the fields; a strange fisherman’s boat. All of these and more are symbols of a new beginning for Keegan’s protagonists. Will that new beginning be better than the past they’ve left behind? Well, that another story, isn’t it? Maybe Keegan will write it some day.


Recommended: Absolutely, without reservation to anyone who loves short stories, especially the stories of Anton Chekhov and William Trevor.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Writing Tips - Using the Elements of Fiction to Create Pacing In Your Novel

A lot of books are very dialogue heavy. Other books rely mainly on narration to tell their story. Others, especially thrillers, rely on action packed scenes. However, the best books always strike a good balance using all three of the above elements: dialogue, narrative, and action. Scenes that weave dialogue, narrative, and action together are much more emotionally engaging for your reader than scenes utilizing only one of the elements of fiction writing.

The following is the opening of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” In it, Fitzgerald does a wonderful job of placing us in the world of the Buttons.

As long ago as 1860 it was the proper thing to be born at home. At present, so I am told, the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anesthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one. So Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were fifty years ahead of style when they decided, one day in the summer of 1860, that their first baby should be born in a hospital. Whether this anachronism had any bearing upon the astonishing history I am about to set down will never be known.

I shall tell you what occurred and let you judge for yourself.

The Roger Buttons held an enviable position, both social and financial, in antebellum Baltimore. They were related to the This Family and the That Family, which, as every Southerner knew, entitled them to membership in that enormous peerage which largely populated the Confederacy. This was their first experience with the charming old custom of having babies – Mr. Button was naturally nervous. He hoped it would be a boy so that he could be sent to Yale College in Connecticut, at which institution Mr. Button himself had been known for four years by the somewhat obvious nickname of “Cuff.”

On the September morning consecrated to the enormous event he arose nervously at six o’clock, dressed himself, adjusted an impeccable stock, and hurried forth through the streets of Baltimore to the hospital, to determine whether the darkness of the night had borne in new life upon its bosom.

When he was approximately a hundred yards from the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen he saw Doctor Keene, the family physician, descending the front steps, rubbing his hands together with a washing movement – as all doctors are required to do by the unwritten ethics of their profession.

Mr. Roger Button, the president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, began to run toward Doctor Keene with much less dignity than was expected from a Southern gentleman of that picturesque period. “Doctor Keene!” he called. “Oh, Doctor Keene!”

The doctor heard him, faced around, and stood waiting, a curious expression settling on his harsh, medicinal face as Mr. Button drew near.

“What happened?” demanded Mr. Button, as he came up in a gasping rush. “What was it? How is she? A boy? Who is it? What –”

“Talk sense!” said Doctor Keene sharply. He appeared somewhat irritated.

“Is the child born?” begged Mr. Button.

Doctor Keene frowned. “Why yes, I suppose so – after a fashion.” Again he threw a curious glance at Mr. Button.

“Is my wife all right?”


“Is it a boy or a girl?”

“Here now!” cried Doctor Keene in a perfect passion of irritation, “I’ll ask you to go and see for yourself. Outrageous!” He snapped the last word out in almost one syllable, then he turned away muttering: “Do you imagine a case like this will help my professional reputation? One more would ruin me – ruin anybody.”

“What’s the matter?” demanded Mr. Button appalled. “Triplets?”

“No, not triplets!” answered the doctor cuttingly. “What’s more, you can go and see for yourself. And get another doctor. I brought you into the world, young man, and I’ve been physician to your family for forty years, but I’m through with you! I don’t want to see you or any of your relatives ever again! Good-bye!”

Look how much Fitzgerald accomplishes here by masterfully weaving together dialogue, narrative, and just a little action. We know what year it is. We know the Buttons are Southerners. We know where in society they are placed. We know what Mr. Button does for a living. We know Mrs. Button has just given birth, and we know the baby is so unusual that the Buttons’ family physician wants nothing more to do with the family. We know that Mr. Button is highly agitated.

Now, how did Fitzgerald know where to put what? How did he know when to convey his information through dialogue and when to convey it through narrative and when to insert action? When to use what is mostly an intuitive process for most writers, especially very good writers, so Fitzgerald probably didn’t do much thinking about it. What he no doubt did do was put himself inside the mind of both Mr. Roger Button and Doctor Keene. He probably tried to feel what they would have been feeling, and then he conveyed those feelings to us.

During your first drafts, just “go with the flow.” Go with what your intuition tells you is right. When you revise, you’ll be able to tell if your scenes are dialogue heavy or narrative heavy or if they lack the proper rhythm, and you’ll be able to adjust accordingly.

Although most really superior novels and short stories will weave dialogue, narrative, and action together into one fabulous braid of a story, there are times when it’s appropriate to concentrate more on one element than the others. My writing partner, Mark Spencer and I concentrated on dialogue for portions of our novel Graceland. This excerpt revolves around the male and female protagonist, Paul and Norma Jean as they speed toward the Graceland mansion on a Tennessee highway:

We were on the highway, Norma Jean driving her Kia very fast, the car's speakers throbbing with "Jailhouse Rock."

"What you do?" she hollered over Elvis.

"What?" I shouted back. A mileage marker whipped past in such a blur I couldn't read it.

"What are you? How you live?"

"Structural engineer."

She shook her head. "Don't know what that means."

"You always drive this fast?"

"Don't you like to get where you wanta be fast?"

"Some times I just like to enjoy the scenery."

"Not much scenery to enjoy right here. Pretty dull part of Tennessee if you ask me." She moved her head back and forth in rhythm with the music.

As we whooshed past a semi, the wind stream pushed the little car about three feet toward the concrete highway divider.

"I like the idea of getting places alive, too!" I shouted.


"I want to live!"

"Oh, yeah, honey. We're gonna have us a good time, don't you worry."

"If we get there alive!"

"Don't worry. We've got years ahead of us. Especially me. Now you're old?"

"I stopped counting at thirty-nine."

"So you're about forty-nine? Anyway, I figure we've got 'bout thirty years together. That's enough time to have some fun. Hey, I like your suit, but you can take your tie off now and relax a little. You know Clide--she's named after her great-grandma--it's 'Clide' with a 'i'--she thought you were a federal agent. She told me she'd seen that look before."

"What look?"

"Your look. Clide's paranoid. Always has been. She thinks between federal agents and space aliens she never really gets any privacy. Course with a name like Clide she grew up with everybody makin' fun of her. When I was a kid I told my mom I wanted to change my name to Priscilla. I like your name. Paul. You weren't named for Paul McCartney, were you?" Before I had a chance to answer, she went right on, talking now at about the same speed she was driving. "No, you're too old. When you were born, nobody knew who he was. You think it would be bad to name a kid 'Elvis'? If you and me have a boy, I think we oughta name him Elvis. For Halloween, we'll get him a little Elvis costume--ohhh, he'll be so cute. I don't think the other kids will make fun of him. Do you?"

I was squinting into the glaring sun. The highway shimmered, unreal, and I was thinking that maybe I now knew how astronauts felt taking off from the launching pad, those G-forces scrambling your gut and your brain.

I said, "Pull over. Please."


"Pull over. Anywhere along here."

"Why? You sick?" She turned Elvis down.


"My drivin' really scarin' you that bad? You wanta drive?" The landscape was slowing down. I felt like I was making the transition from an Impressionist painting to a Realist one. "No, you can keep driving. We just need to stop and talk for a minute."

“We been talkin’.”

“I need to tell you something. I need you to understand something about me.”

The emphasis on dialogue in this scene highlights Norma Jean’s impatience and her freewheeling sense of fun and adventure. In this scene, Mark and I didn’t want the reader to get bogged down or distracted by narration; we didn’t want the pace of the story to be slowed. We wanted Norma Jean’s words to take center stage, to overwhelm Paul as his sense of unease grows. The scene above just wouldn’t have had the same impact if we’d woven narrative throughout the dialogue. Norma Jean is a “take charge” kind of girl. She’s a girl who knows what she wants when she wants it, and it never occurs to her that others aren’t quite as spontaneous as she is. A lot is revealed about both Norma Jean and Paul by isolating the dialogue for part of the scene.

When you’re weaving dialogue, narrative, and action, consider the pacing of your story and the effect you want to achieve. If you want to show conflict, for example, then a “dialogue only” scene might very well be in order. If you want to convey something more reflective, then perhaps “narrative only” might work very well.
The following is a passage from Anne Michaels’ book, The Winter Vault. The male protagonist, Avery, is reflecting on how it might be to grow old with his wife, Jean, the female protagonist. Because his mood is so reflective, narrative, and long sentences, suit Michaels’ purpose much better than dialogue would have, and it slows down the pace of the novel, as it should.

Avery had already imagined, in those first months with Jean, what the chance to grow old with her would mean: not regret at how her body would change, but the private knowledge of all she’d been. Sometimes, his ache so keen, Avery felt that only in old age would he finally have full possession of her youthful flesh. It would be his secret, forged in all the nights next to each other.

In the flat on Clarendon, when Avery couldn’t sleep, Jean whispered to him while he stroked her arm. She recited a list of all the native Ontario plants she could think of: hair grass, arrow-leaved aster, the heath aster, swamp aster, long-leaved bluets, foxglove, side-oats grama, the compass plant whose leaves always align on the north-south axis. The sand dropseed, turtlehead, great St. John’s wort, sneezeweed, balsam ragwort, fox sedge, umbrella sedge, the little bluestream…and then sleep grew farther away still and he began to touch her with purpose.

Because the above is something upon which Avery is reflecting, it’s best to use straight narrative. He could convey his thoughts to another in dialogue, but the magic would probably be broken. The scene is just too reflective to carry dialogue well.

There are no hard and fast rules about when to use dialogue, when to use narrative, and when to use action, and how to blend the three for maximum effect. You just have to find your story’s rhythm, and you have to write every day. Still, there are a few questions you can ask yourself when doing your revisions:

Is my story moving too slowly? Does it feel as though it’s getting bogged down? (If so, you might try using more dialogue.)

Do my readers need more backstory or more information about my characters? (Dialogue and narration might work here, or even just one of the two.)

Is my story moving along too fast? Do I need to step back and let the story – and the reader – breath? (If so, cut back on the dialogue and use more narrative.)

Do I want to show my reader that one of my characters is mulling something over in his mind? (Definitely use narrative.)

Is my story boring? Does it need some spice and liveliness? (Try dialogue.)

Is my story top heavy in any way?

Are my characters conveying too much backstory in dialogue?

Whether you end up writing a fast paced thriller or a slower paced, more reflective character driven novel, let the elements of storytelling do double, and sometimes triple, duty for you. Let them reveal backstory, drive the narrative forward, and reveal character. All three are important. Most of all, of course, make sure the pacing of your novel fits the characters and the story you’ve created.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book Review - The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

I wanted to read a book set in Egypt, preferably some place in or around Cairo, so I turned to Anne Michaels’ second book, The Winter Vault. I was pulled in by the cover art alone: the Nile, the people on camels, the date palms, the beautiful orange and yellow, so reflective of the desert heat.

Canadian writer Michaels is, of course, an award-winning poet. So, it came as no surprise to me that her second novel was written in highly lyrical, poetic prose. Michaels is also known to explore the great themes of grief, displacement, and loss, and The Winter Vault, like her poetry and like her previous novel, explores those themes on a rather grand and very melancholy scale. However, the very things that cause Michaels’ poetry to soar are also the very things that cause her prose to keep the reader at arm’s length.

The Winter Vault, which is told in two parts, is set in 1964 and opens in Egypt where Avery Escher, a young British engineer, accompanied by his Canadian botanist wife, Jean, is working to dismantle, block-by-block, the one thousand-year-old temple at Abu Simbel and rebuild it on higher ground before the Aswan dam project and Lake Nasser flood the ancient site.

Michaels carries her theme of displacement even further when she tells us how Avery and Jean met when Avery was working on the St. Lawrence Seaway project, which connected Montreal with Lake Ontario, and she draws many parallels between the displaced Canadians and the displaced Nubians. One of the novel’s most powerful set pieces revolves around the heartbreak of a community being separated from the graves of its cherished dead, no matter where in the world they may be. In fact, the “winter vault” of the novel’s title refers to places built in cold climates to house corpses when the ground is far too hard and frozen for digging graves. The following passage is an example of what I mean by the "power" of this set piece. Avery is talking to a widow whose husband’s grave is going to be moved:

- But they can move your husband’s body, said Avery. The company will pay the expenses.

She looked at him with astonishment. The thought seemed to silence her. Then she said,

- If you move his body then you’ll have to move the hill. You’ll have to move the fields around him. You’ll have to move the view from the top of the hill and the trees he planted, one for each of our six children. You’ll have to move the sun because it sets among these trees. And move his mother and his father and his younger sister — she was the most admired girl in the county, but all the men died in the first war, so she never married and was laid to rest next to her mother. They’re all company for one another and those graves are old, so you’ll have to move the earth with them to make sure nothing of anyone is left behind. Can you promise me that? Do you know what it means to miss a man for twenty years?

And yes, Michaels does omit quotation marks, thus calling even more attention to her use of language.

As day-by-day, work continues on the Abu Simbel project, both Avery and Jean wonder if rebuilding can ever replicate the original and how best to honor the dead. At one point in the book, Jean comes to the conclusion that:

Unprecedented in history, masses of humanity do not live, nor will they be buried, in the land where they were born. War did this first...and then water.

A tragic event in the lives and marriage of Avery and Jean sends them away from Egypt, however and back to Toronto. There, not really knowing if they are still in love or if it’s simply that each must work through his or her grief alone, they decide to separate. Avery makes the decision to study architecture, and he pretty much disappears from the narrative, which, for the balance of the book, concentrates on Jean and her relationship with “the Caveman,” a renegade graffiti artist named Lucjan. As Jean is planting herbal plants in the public gardens of Toronto each night in order to remind immigrants of their homeland, Lucjan, a Jewish-Polish refugee, is replicating the animals of Lascaux on various available sites.

I found Avery and Jean’s separation entirely believable, and to Michaels’ credit, the second half of the book ties in beautifully with the first thematically in that Lucjan was involved in the rebuilding of Warsaw’s Old Town after WWII. Michaels is, of course, still exploring the same themes, and Avery and Lucjan are connected through Jean. However, I really did not like the fact that Michaels was so willing to abandon Avery and cheat her readers out of experiencing the grieving process he had to go through. This turn of events also made me very unsympathetic to Jean, who seemed so concerned with “betrayal” up until the time she separated from Avery and met Lucjan. Wasn’t Jean’s affair with Lucjan also a betrayal? And wasn’t it a betrayal of the worst kind? Neither Jean nor Michaels seems to care, and for me, this flied in the face of what this book is all about. And, while I was interested in the stories of Lucjan and interested in Warsaw, for me the emotional heft of the book was lost in Part Two. It wasn’t that I didn’t care; I care deeply about the Holocaust and its victims and I'm very interested in Warsaw and all of Eastern Europe; I simply felt like I was reading a different book altogether, and one I hadn’t signed on to read at that point.

Michaels’ characters establish themselves through long passages of uninterrupted narration. So it is with Lucjan as he details his childhood as an orphan in Warsaw after the war, as he makes clear that he, too, knows what it’s like to suffer. In this, the second part of The Winter Vault is very much like Michaels’ Orange Prize winning debut novel, Fugitive Pieces, published in 1997. As I said, my dissatisfaction with The Winter Vault’s second half, came, not through lack of sympathy for Lucjan or any disinterest in Warsaw or the Holocaust, but simply because I felt there had been a very distinct disconnect in the book, despite the echoes Michaels builds in.

The problem for many readers will lie in the fact that Michaels doesn’t approach the novel in traditional novelistic fashion. Instead, she writes very much like her fellow Canadian, Michael Ondaatje, who also began his career as a poet. Both Ondaatje and Michaels had debut novels that entranced millions (The English Patient and Fugitive Pieces) and both approached these novels in an impressionistic, poetic manner. Both make use of dense language and intense sensory observations – prerequisites for any good poet. Their novels are more like snapshots frozen in time than stories that progress from one point to the logical next point. Sometimes this works, but more often than not, it freezes a book’s narrative; it distances the reader from the characters and the story, and it can begin to sound far too didactic and flat. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I experienced when reading The Winter Vault. Although one character says, “No two facts are too far apart to be put together,” I found that in The Winter Vault, they can be, and even though the book is beautifully written, Michaels tries her reader’s patience. There were times when I just wanted to sigh and say, “Please, get on with it.”

Generally, I love lyrically written, poetic books. I love poetry. But I do require something of plot in a novel, even in a character driven novel, and the dialogue and the characters have to come alive for me; they have to pull me in. I’m sorry to say that in The Winter Vault, they definitely did not.

Avery and Jean talk to each other in a lofty way no married couple would ever talk to each other. Ever. At one point, Jean says to Avery:

- You’re like a man seen from a distance, a man who we think has stopped to tie his shoelaces but who is really kneeling in prayer.

To which Avery replies:

- Our shoelaces have to come undone, said Avery, before we ever think to kneel....

It’s a lovely, poetic image, and a lofty thought, and a writer might get away with that in one or two places in a novel, but Avery and Jean speak to each other like that all the time. All the time. It doesn’t take many pages until the whole effect becomes cloying. Eventually, it renders Avery and Jean no more than props or conveyances of the theme and the prose. Michaels never seem reconciled to the fact that readers want to read about people they can identify with, people who, while they may have never lived except within the pages of a book, seem real to the reader. Even the simplest things in this book have to be explored for their deeper, hidden meaning:

Lucjan made a late supper. He threw all the ingredients into one pan, the vegetables, the meat, the eggs; he crushed and rubbed the dust of herbs over the puckering oil...Jean watched him. No one had ever cooked for her in all the years since her mother died. She had not known that this had hurt her…she wept as she ate...and he let her cry, only taking her hand across the table, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, this gratitude. To eat and weep.

No wonder the people in this book are so profoundly unhappy. Sometimes, things don’t need to be analyzed. Sometimes they just exist to be enjoyed. The poetic intensity that some people, like me, love in books, has to be doled out in small doses. Michaels simply overwhelms us with it. A good thing can be taken too far. I like chocolate cake; I would never want an entire meal consisting of it. In the end, I think Michaels has given us “too much of a good thing” with her rhapsodic prose. After all, what works, and works well in poetry, isn’t going to work at all in prose, especially long fiction. And the book reads like Michaels is sometimes fighting against the form of the novel. Michaels seems so intent on packing The Winter Vault full of poetic images and turns of phrase that there is no rhythm to her writing; there’s no room for the book to breathe. Nothing is allowed to exist without being given poetic flight. Because of this – and because of that very abrupt narrative shift about halfway through – beautiful as the book is, its emotional impact is greatly lessened; its discourses on architecture, history, botany, etc. overwhelm the story.

People who love pulling a random volume of poetry off their shelves and spending a sunny afternoon reading in the garden under the pear tree might like this kind of rapt prose. Others are going to find it terribly overwritten and cloying. Yes, the themes are lofty, but the characters are ordinary people struggling with ordinary problems, as, I presume, most of Michaels’ readers to be. Even those readers like me who love poetry and love lyrical writing and loved Fugitive Pieces are going to find that the prose in The Winter Vault, and thus the entire book, itself, eventually sinks into nothing more than a sugary confection with no substance.

The ending of The Winter Vault could go either way – happy or not. I’m not going to spoil the surprise and tell you here which it is, but I will say that it fit with the rest of the book. Sadly, even the ending seemed to have been written, not to explore the “humanness” in us all and our responses to loss and tragedy, but rather to place characters in a beautiful image, a poetic turn of phrase.

Anne Michaels is already a first rate poet. I think she could be a first rate novelist, too, if only she’d remember that readers of novels aren’t looking for a volume of poetry. Even those of us who love highly literary, character driven fiction are looking for a story about people. It’s people – not language – that in the end makes or breaks a book.


Recommended: No, not even if you like poetry. If you like poetry, read a volume of poetry, instead. Read Anne Michaels' poetry, or if you must have poetic prose, read Fugitive Pieces, Michaels' debut novel. If, like me, you want to read a book set in Egypt, try Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. And if you’re looking for true insight into “what it means to be human” turn to William Trevor.

Friday, February 11, 2011

An Off-Topic Update

The Primary Children's Medical Center's (PCMC) has agreed NOT to do any trauma training on cats, but to use simulators, instead.

Our letters, petitions, and phone calls really do work! Thank you to all who helped!

That makes this coming Monday a good Valentine's Day for me and my handsome husband! :) We are both animal rights activists.

Book Review - Classics - Strangers On a Train by Patricia Highsmith

Strangers On a Train by Patricia Highsmith is a book that’s far too often neglected today. In fact, it’s so neglected that many people don’t even know it is a book. For this, of course, I blame Alfred Hitchcock - more or less. His film adaptation was so brilliantly done (though in some significant ways, very different from the book) that people interested in Strangers On a Train simply watch the film rather than read the book. I should know. I was once one of them. The book is so good, however, that I think people should do both.

Strangers On a Train is the story of architect, Guy Haines and wealthy sociopath, Charles Bruno. The two meet on a train as Guy is heading home to ask his wife Miriam for a divorce so he can marry the spoiled, rich and self-centered socialite, Anne Morton. Miriam hasn’t consented to a divorce in the past, but this time Guy has grounds...Miriam is pregnant and Guy’s definitely not the father. Still, Guy thinks she’ll cause all the problems and delays she can and, when he confides in Bruno, Bruno comes up with a bizarre plan. If Guy will kill Bruno’s father, who is an innocent old man, but a source of misery to Bruno, Bruno will, in turn, murder Miriam, clearing the way for Guy to marry Anne.

Guy isn’t the greatest and most upstanding fellow in the world, but he’s not a cold-blooded murderer, either and he’s shocked at Bruno’s proposal. He dismisses it and gets off the train, thinking that he’ll never see Charles Bruno again. But, lo and behold, it isn’t long until Miriam is found murdered and, of course, Guy knows who’s responsible. Now, Bruno wants Guy to carry out his part of Bruno’s plan. In fact, he’s going to insist on it, and insist he can. Guy, it would seem, is in a little bit of a bind.

The rest of Strangers On a Train is a delicious game of cat-and-mouse during which Guy tries desperately to beat Bruno at his own game. Highsmith, however, didn’t write novels that were plot-driven only. Strangers On a Train is just as much about character as it is about plot. There really isn’t anyone likable in the whole book. Miriam was so nasty, we don’t care that Guy murdered her; Bruno is totally deranged; Anne is the coldest fish I’ve ever come across; and Guy, well, morally, Guy can’t be said to be without blame despite the fact that he rejected Bruno’s initial offer. He’s happy Miriam is dead; he just doesn’t want to be implicated in her murder.

While Guy and Anne are engaged (this despite the fact the Guy is, at least until Bruno enters the picture, married), Strangers On a Train is certainly no love story. It really is almost entirely devoid of romance. Anne Morton is the type of woman who wants to make a “good match” and, whether she loves the man involved plays little to no importance. Guy isn’t all that much in love with Anne, either. He has his sights set on his career and Anne’s father is very influential. But, if Guy becomes implicated in Miriam’s murder, well, he can just kiss his own ambitions - and Anne - goodbye.

While the relationship between Guy and Anne isn’t all that interesting, the relationship between Guy and Bruno is, and as the novel progresses, their relationship becomes more and more complex and ambiguous. Eventually:

Each was what the other had not chosen to be, the cast off self, what he thought he hated, but perhaps in reality loved.

This sentence is really the key to understanding Strangers On a Train.

Bruno obviously has plenty of problems and these problems extend into the sexual arena as well. While Highsmith hints at a sexual relationship, or at least a sexual attraction between Guy and Bruno, it isn’t a healthy one on the part of Bruno. The man is too deranged to engage in anything healthy and his strange relationship with his parents, especially with his mother, precludes him from developing either healthy hetero- or homosexual relationships. Still, the dynamics between Guy and Bruno are fascinating, especially as we witness Guy’s emotional and moral deterioration. Some may see him as a victim; I did not. Guy is perfectly sane, and as such, must be held responsible for his actions.

The writing in Strangers On a Train is taut and suspenseful, so suspenseful that it’s hard to put the book down even to sleep. The scene in which Bruno murders Miriam is especially suspenseful, and even though we know what’s coming, we’re really not prepared for it:

His hands captured her throat on the last word, stifling its abortive uplift of surprise. He shook her. His body seemed to harden like rock, and he heard his teeth crack. She made a grating sound in her throat, but he had her too tight for a scream. With a leg behind her, he wrenched her backward, and they fell to the ground together with no sound but of a brush of leaves. He sunk his fingers deeper, enduring the distasteful pressure of her body under his so her writhing would not get them both up. Her throat felt hotter and fatter. Stop, stop, stop! He willed it! And the head stopped turning. He was sure he had held her long enough, but he did not lessen his grip. Glancing behind him, he saw nothing coming. When he relaxed his fingers, it felt as if he had made deep dents in her throat as in a piece of dough. Then she made a sound like an ordinary cough that terrified him like the rising dead, and he fell on her again, hitched himself onto his knees to do it, pressing her with a force he thought would break his thumbs. All the power in him he poured out through his hands. And if it was not enough? He heard himself whimper. She was still and limp now.

This is classic Patricia Highsmith and classic noir fiction. The pacing is fast and wonderful as Highsmith stacks complication on complication, pulling the reader in and ratcheting up the suspense. If you’ve seen the film, but haven’t read the book, I think you’ll be both surprised and pleased with Strangers On a Train. Although the beginning of the film remained true to the book, the middle and end differ in many ways and I can’t really say which is best although I don’t think it will spoil the book for you by telling you that it’s far darker than the film. In some ways, I prefer the film, but in other ways, I prefer the book. I do think the ending is sadder and more emotional in the book. There’s more ambiguity in the ending offered by the book, something I really liked.

This is a very interior book and much of the suspense takes place inside the mind of Guy and inside the mind of Bruno. Will he? Won’t he? What will happen next? While Highsmith keeps us in suspense (and biting our nails), she never withholds information from her readers. We know what Guy and Bruno know and, really, this is enough. This book is so good that there’s no need for surprise endings or “twists.”

Despite its age, Strangers On a Train remains crisp, taut and dark. I think it’s noir fiction at its finest.


Recommended: Absolutely, especially to those who like mysteries or noir fiction.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

An ImportanOff-Topic Message

I rarely go off-topic on Literary Corner Cafe, but I wanted to bring my readers an important message from PETA:

In our most recent e-mail, we asked you to post a message on Primary Children's Medical Center's (PCMC) Facebook wall opposing its cruel and archaic cat intubation laboratory scheduled for this Monday, February 14. It appears that PCMC has disabled its Facebook account in order to prevent compassionate people like you from posting public messages criticizing the facility's inhumane training exercise.

During this harmful exercise, cats will have hard plastic tubes forced down their delicate windpipes for intubation training—even though modern, superior simulators are available and widely used across the country for this very purpose.

PCMC can try to ignore the recommendations of leading medical organizations and experts in the field who strongly endorse the use of simulators for intubation training—but we can't allow PCMC to ignore your voice!

Please take a moment to call PCMC's Pediatric Education Services Department at 1-800-910-7262 and politely ask the facility to replace the use of animals in the upcoming Transport Conference with modern and humane simulators.

Thank you for keeping the pressure on PCMC!


Justin Goodman
Associate Director
Laboratory Investigations Department
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Literary News - Help Choose Which of Dame Beryl Bainbridge's Novels Wins a Booker

The late, much loved, much respected novelist, Dame Beryl Bainbridge was shortlisted five times for the prestigious Man Booker Prize (more times than any other author), but unfortunately, she never actually won. The press dubbed her “the Booker bridesmaid,” and, unfortunately, despite her many other literary prizes and accolades, that appellation stuck. Now, the Man Booker Prize Foundation is going to award Bainbridge a special, posthumous prize, “The Man Booker Best of Beryl,” and has asked the public to vote on which of her five shortlisted novels should win.

Bainbridge’s shortlisted books were: The Dressmaker (1973); The Bottle Factory Outing (1974); An Awfully Big Adventure (1990); Every Man for Himself (1996), and Master Georgie (1998). All of these books can now be purchased in paperback editions by Abacus.

Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Man Booker Prize commented:

Dame Beryl was a very gracious non-winner and no Man Booker dinner was complete without her. She may have been the eternal Booker Bridesmaid but, with this special prize created in her honour, we are delighted to be able finally to crown her a Booker Bride by letting the public choose what they believe to be the best of her books.

Dame Beryl’s daughter, Jojo Davies said:

Beryl did want to win the Booker very much despite her protests to the contrary. We are glad she is finally able to become the bride, no longer the bridesmaid.

Author and actress, Dame Beryl Bainbridge wrote seventeen novels, two travel books, and five plays for stage and television. Her novel, Master Georgie won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Every Man for Himself was awarded the Whitbread “Novel of the Year” Prize. The Bottle Factory Outing won the Guardian Fiction Prize, while Injury Time won the Whitbread Prize. The Bottle Factory Outing, Sweet William, and The Dressmaker were all adapted for film, as was An Awfully Big Adventure, which starred Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman. Dame Beryl’s final novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, will be published by Little, Brown in June.

The public has been invited to vote via an online poll on the Man Booker Website, which opens today, Tuesday, February 8, 2011, for their favorite of Dame Beryl’s five shortlisted novels. The winning title will be announced in mid-April 2011.

I’ve voted on the book I think should win the prize for Beryl. Please go to the Man Booker site here:

...and vote on which book you think should be awarded the prize, then please stop by here and let us know which you think should win, and which you think will win.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Book Review - The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

In general, I dislike magical realism, but I love the brand of magical realism written by Alice Hoffman. I like that fact that Hoffman isn’t a “showy” writer, that she doesn’t depend on plots that carry the reader along at breakneck speed or, despite her fondness for magical realism, gimmicks. Alice Hoffman is, instead, a restrained writer, a gentle and quiet writer, and one who leaves the stylistic pyrotechnics to others. However, she’s a masterful storyteller and a gifted author.

Hoffman’s latest book, The Red Garden, is a collection of fourteen linked short stories that tell the history of a fictional town, Blackwell, Massachusetts, deep in the Berkshires, from its founding in 1750 to the late 20th century.

Blackwell is a very small town, and so the same families keep appearing in the linked stories – the Motts, the Patridges, the Starrs, and the Jacobs. These people marry and live in the shadow of Hightop Mountain, and these same people pass down Blackwell’s folktales and legends from one generation to another.

Blackwell was first known as Bearsville due to the large population of bears dotting Hightop Mountain. The opening story, “The Bear’s House,” revolves around a plucky young woman named Hallie Brady, who, along with three other families, founded Blackwell. Hallie was an orphan from England, who began working at a hatmaker’s at the age of eleven. At seventeen, she married and joined her forty-year-old husband and three other families on an expedition to western Massachusetts. The others were discouraged by the snow, the cold, the bears, and the lack of food. (The men seem to have lacked basic hunting and survival skills.) Hallie, however, didn’t let anything deter her. As Hoffman writes:

She had come all the way from England and she didn't intend to die her first winter out, not on the western side of this high dark mountain.

Determined not to turn back, Hallie smashes the ice of a frozen river and fishes out eels for a stew, builds traps for rabbits, and milks a hibernating bear.

And Hallie loved “her” bear. Even after the town was established she often “gazed out the window, as if there was someplace she wanted to be, some other life that was more worth living.”

In fact, as the book progresses, the reader sees that almost all of the women in Blackwell long for something that’s just out of their reach. Some of these women, like Hallie, pine for the wild. Others long for a life of love, but die young and alone, instead. Some stay in town, while others venture away. All, however, seemed touched by regret. As one character says at the end of her story, “I already knew I would never get what I wanted."

It’s Hallie Brady, the “first lady” of Blackwell who introduces many of the themes and motifs that run through this collection of stories: a courageous young woman, who seems to find love only in the most surprising of places; an intense but unstable relationship between humans and the natural world in which they live; a legacy of sorrow and loss; a definite undercurrent of magic and mystery. And it’s Hallie who plants the garden of the book’s title in the rich, red soil that causes every plant that grows there to be vibrant and alive with the color red.

Although it’s women who are featured in this book (this is Alice Hoffman; woman are naturally going to be featured), the men play a part as well, and like the women, the men are subject to the magic that constantly envelops Blackwell.

Ghosts surface again and again in this book, in almost every story, and since their stories are rooted in the actual history of Blackwell, they remind the reader that stories usually outlive their readers and that the division between the “real” world and the world beyond is a very thin one.

Every story is linked to and enriched by the stories that came before it. And real, historical figures visit Blackwell. At one point, Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman wanders into Blackwell and plants the “Tree of Life,” an apple tree that will sustain all of the town, and in doing so, he saves a life. One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, stumbles into Blackwell from Mount Holyoke College, with her dog, Carlos. She only stays a few days, but when she leaves, she’s forever changed.

Other prominent characters are the characters we get to know in the pages of this dreamy, fabulist book. There’s the little girl who drowns in the Eel River, but whose ghost hovers over Blackwell and its inhabitants. “The Monster of Blackwell” revolves around Matthew James, a young man so “exceedingly ugly, so ugly he couldn’t look at himself,” a young man with a hideous deformity, a deformity so severe that he flees to the solitude of Hightop Mountain, only to fall in love with, and write poetry to, Kate Partridge, a beautiful woman in the village, the daughter of one of Blackwell’s founding fathers. We know from the outset that their romance is either going to have a happy ending or it’s going to be bittersweet, and when that ending does come, it seems as inevitable as the setting of the sun or the dawn of a new day.

The common thread running through all these stories is the red garden, of course, a garden where all the plants bloom red, where passions run high and bones lie buried, some of them in secret. Scarlet amaranth and crimson larkspur grow wild in Blackwell; many of the town’s inhabitant’s have red hair and freckles, and the mercurial temper that’s legendary with such coloring. Ava Cooper’s very best cake – the Apology Cake – is, of course, red velvet. When anyone turns on the TV at the “Jack Straw Bar and Grill” in the center of town, it’s the Red Sox who are on. And the “Tree of Life,” planted by the above mentioned Johnny Appleseed in the center of town, drops apples called “Look-No-Furthers,” a gentle reminder to all who pick the fruit that redder apples are nowhere to be found.

The strongest pieces in the book are the stories in which a strong current of magical realism is present as it is in “The Fisherman’s Wife," a story about a strange woman, with black hair so long she’d step on it if she didn’t keep it pinned up. The wife of a fisherman who’s caught more than one million eels, this odd woman goes door-to-door in Blackwell until something very extraordinary happens, but something that in Blackwell, barely causes the inhabitants to bat an eyelash.

Just as in a novel, there is a narrative arc in The Red Garden, but it’s so subtly and gently built, so feather-light, that a casual reader could easily miss it. I find this “feather-lightness” to be true of almost all of Alice Hoffman’s work. If she were any other author, it would be a fault, however her writing is so different from that of others, it’s so much “her own,” that what would be a fault in anyone else, is beautiful in Hoffman’s work. Her “gently layered themes” have come to be her trademark. In fact, when I think of Alice Hoffman, it’s the word, “gentle” that first comes to my mind. Her themes don’t become apparent until they are repeated over and over and over again, in subtly different ways.

As always, Hoffman conveys her extraordinary events in spare, matter-of-fact prose, but sometimes we come upon a gem that really touches us deeply. In this book we hear laughter shine “through the darkness, brighter than any light;” we see people falling in love “like a stone dropped into a river;” we watch a toddler “hurtle into each day.” It’s fresh and it’s beautiful and it’s a joy to read.

Just as she sometimes pulls real, historical personages into these stories, Hoffman has set the stories against real, historical events – the Civil War, the Depression, World War II – however, sometimes all of this seems curiously out-of-place. There’s the tale of Ben Levy, a Jewish graduate of Yale in the 1930s. Very few Jews attended Ivy League schools in the 1930s. Then there’s the fact that while Hoffman uses the Civil War as a backdrop, she never once mentions slavery. This might bother some people, but I thought it added to the enchantment of the book. Blackwell wasn’t so isolated from the rest of the world that its inhabitants didn’t know what was going on, but it was isolated enough not to be too impacted by them.

In “The Fisherman’s Wife,” a character says, “A story can still entrance people even while the world is falling apart.”

If it’s Alice Hoffman who’s telling the tale, that, of course, is true.


Recommended: Definitely to fans of Alice Hoffman and to those who like fairy tales or magical realism. Even if you’re like me, and generally like only reality-based fiction, you might find something to love in these gentle, beautiful stories and enjoy the change of pace.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Writing Tips - Finding Focus In Your Fiction

Many manuscripts that are submitted to literary agents and editors are rejected because they lack focus and depth. A lack of focus and depth will cause an editor (and any reader) to be unable to identify with your characters and unable to be emotionally engaged by your story. This often occurs when a writer is overly concerned with non-stop action in a book and leaves little room for deepening character and reflection, though a lack of focus can happen in any type of work.

Yes, I know. Dan Brown gets away with seemingly non-stop car chases, a large cast of characters, and plenty of unexpected twists and turns. But he wasn’t always so successful, and if you’re a new author, trying to become established, it’s better to “follow the rules” and give your characters some breathing room and your reader more time to get to know them. Readers don’t like to have to “flip back” in a book to see what they might have missed along the way. They like to get to know your characters like they get to know their friends – slowly, little-by-little. They don’t like someone to sit down and tell them their life story all in one sitting.

In order to fully engage any reader, profession or non-professional, in your story, you much limit the number of characters with whom you wish them to identify and care about. In many books, the action revolves around a single character. This is fine, but two or three characters are fine as well. More than that and you run the risk of diluting your story and causing the reader to scratch his head in confusion rather than gluing him to the page, needing to know “what happens next.”

Ask yourself why you read fiction? Isn’t one of the reasons because you enjoy getting involved with a character, likable or not, and his or her situation and finding out how that situation is eventually resolved? This, of course, constitutes your novel’s narrative arc, and the reader wants to follow it from the initial hook, through its development, to its resolution and denouement. He or she also wants to follow your character arc, i.e., the way your character grows and changes during the course of the novel as he or she faces and solves, or doesn’t solve, his or her problems. Too many characters don’t allow the writer to develop a strong narrative or character arc. Yes, some writers could handle a large cast of characters well, e.g., Leo Tolstoy, but in general, books like War and Peace and Anna Karenina are not en vogue today. Today’s most prized novels are more intimate and focus on a more limited number of characters.

Though you might balk at the advice above, and you might very well be able to handle a large cast of characters, it really is best to give the publishing world what it craves when your name is still unknown. If you want it to be known, don’t start off by shooting yourself in the foot. It’s not fun. I should know. I started by writing comedic crime capers, and my name isn’t Elmore Leonard. I ignored advice that there was no market for comedic crime capers unless one was already an established author. I learned the hard way, but I did learn. The book I’m working on right now is about as far away from a comedic crime caper as one can get, though I’ll admit, I do still find this “dead” genre fascinating. I loved Get Shorty.

Too many manuscripts today focus on non-stop action. A “Stephanie Plum type” character (Janet Evanovich does not have a problem with pacing, however) finds one dead body, then another, then another, and another. Meanwhile, we haven’t even gotten to know the main character. The writer needs to take a break from the action and give us some reflection from his or her protagonist. Scott Turow did this very well in his debut novel, Presumed Innocent.

Take a break from all the dead bodies, the car chases, the one-mishap-after-another and let us know what your protagonist looks like, where he/she comes from, why he’s doing what he’s doing, what she thinks about everything that’s happening. Believe me, if you’ve done your character studies, this will be just as engrossing to your readers as the action set pieces will be. In fact, one of the best ways to bond your protagonist to your readers is to let your protagonist tell the reader things he or she would never tell another soul. Things he or she has trouble admitting even to himself/herself.

Back story is important. So are the little details. Don’t forget to encompass the five senses in your narrative. Tell us how something looked, smelled, felt, tasted, what it sounded like. Tell us through your characters’ eyes. Different characters perceive the same thing in very different ways, and that different perception can be very revealing.

“Different characters” brings me to the subject of narrative voices. Some beginning writers dilute their story by letting too many people tell the tale. True, if you use first person and only one first person, you’re going to have to have that one narrator in every single scene in your book. But you can use first person for one character, then switch to another first person for another character in another chapter or part of your book, just as you do with third person. Just don’t switch viewpoint in the middle of a scene. Yes, it’s been done, and it’s been done successfully, but I don’t recommend it to a beginning writer. Many seasoned writers have trouble doing it gracefully, and most readers really don’t like it very well.

Other manuscripts may limit their narrative voices, but still suffer from too many story threads requiring too many endings. A good novel can, and often does, contain several story threads, but a good novel has one goal and one ending, in which all these disparate story threads converge. Too many endings will leave your reader confused, unsatisfied, or “at loose ends.”

I’ve also edited manuscripts in which the author, though well-intentioned, tried to develop far too many themes. We know a good author is interested in many subjects. Choose one to explore and develop for your current “in progress” novel and save the rest for future novels. Too many themes will dilute your story. You need to choose one (or at the most two) and then give your readers all the details to make your exploration – and your book – deep and meaningful as well as enjoyable.

Of course, different writers will write at different pace. You might write faster-paced books that I write or the guy down the street writes. That’s okay as long as you don’t sacrifice focus and depth to breakneck pacing. If you’re a beginning writer, make sure you strike a good balance better action, dialogue, and narrative. Give your characters – and your readers – some much-wanted “breathing space.”