Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Book Review - Bestsellers - The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

Civil war in the Balkans has left that region bereft and in need. It is in this fascinating region that Téa Obreht sets her elegantly written debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife.

While the protagonist of The Tiger’s Wife is Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor who has returned to her homeland to help the villagers, the central mystery of the book revolves around Natalia’s beloved grandfather as Natalia seeks to reconstruct his final days and his death in a village named Zdrevkov, far from his home.

Although Natalia’s search for the rhyme and reason behind her grandfather’s actions seems pretty straightforward, Obreht twines two folktales/legends around the central story, and in their telling writes a “story about stories.” And, even though Natalia is the protagonist of The Tiger’s Wife, it’s her wise, sweet grandfather who takes center stage, or at least he should.

Natalia’s grandfather lives in the City, a city that can only be Belgrade, but this is a book of fiction, and I really didn’t care if Obreht named the city or not. In fact, just calling it “the City” was more in keeping with the folktales and myths that make up a great part of this book. Natalia’s grandfather, who is also a physician, is also inordinately fond of animals, especially tigers. When Natalia was a child, he often took her to visit the zoo and carried a tattered and torn copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book with him everywhere. He is never without it. It is from her grandfather that Natalia, who seems to be a stand-in for the author, has come to love tigers, herself. When she learns of her beloved grandfather’s death, she’s at a pay phone in a gas station at the border of an Eastern European country, which she and her best friend, Zora, are about to enter in order to deliver vaccines to an orphanage sorely in need. Although her grandmother begs her to abandon her journey to the orphanage and come directly home, Natalia continues on, determined, not only to bring back her grandfather’s possessions, which are secured in a blue pouch Natalia must not, under any conditions, open, but also to discover why the grandfather she thought she knew so well went off to die alone.

During the war, Natalia’s grandfather tried his best to pretend that nothing had changed even though doctors over fifty years of age, like himself, were suspected of “loyalist feelings toward the unified state” and thus suspended from the practice of medicine. Natalia’s grandfather defied the law, and he continued to see patients in secret. However, what disrupted his life more than his inability to practice medicine was the closing of the city zoo. After the government closes the zoo, Natalia’s grandfather can no longer indulge in his favorite weekly routing of visiting the tigers.

One of the folktales that twines around the main storyline is one Natalia’s grandfather told her and revolves around the “deathless man,” Gavran Gailé, the nephew of Death, who defied and cheated Death by sparing a lover's life. Condemned forever, Gailé must spend eternity scouring the earth and gathering in souls. For that reason, he travels with wars and epidemics, and has been cursed with agelessness, something many people think they would enjoy. Gailé, however, is quick to set the record straight. “Dying is not punishment,” he tells the grandfather. “The dead are loved. They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.”

The other folktale is really a fable and takes place during World War II in the very village where Natalia’s grandfather grew up. After the Germans bombed the City in 1941, a tiger escaped from the zoo and took refuge in the mountains above the grandfather’s village. Almost everyone feared the tiger greatly, as well they should. All, that is, but the deaf-mute wife of the abusive local butcher, who has mysteriously disappeared. The townspeople believed his wife might have killed him, and they also believed this same wife fed and cared for the tiger. Because of this, they began calling her “the tiger’s wife.” The other person who loved and revered the tiger was a small boy, a small boy who would grow up to be Natalia’s grandfather.

“Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories,” Naralia says, “the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life — of my grandfather’s days in the army; his great love for my grandmother; the years he spent as a surgeon and a tyrant of the University.”

I believed Natalia, but understanding her grandfather proved to be no easy task for this reader as the two folktales really tell us very little about the boy/man who was Natalia’s grandfather. Even after reading the two folktales, I still didn’t quite understand why Natalia’s grandfather loved tigers so, or why he always carried a copy of The Jungle Book in his pocket. But, I really wanted to understand. Natalia may be our protagonist in this book, but her grandfather is the book’s very heart and soul.

If the book seems to be obsessed with death and with how people come to terms with death, it is. It is also about the responsibilities the living owe the dead, and what has the power to live on, if not individually, then in the collective imagination.

As Natalia and Zora continue with their medical mission to the orphanage, they come into contact with a family who is searching for the body of a hastily buried relative, one buried in a vineyard during the war, and one the family has now come to retrieve. The man’s displacement is literally making the children of the family sick. The family wants to rebury the man, so that they, and he, have peace. Obreht’s words will cause some readers to shiver as Natalia and the others locate the dead man’s bones and begin to wash them. Obreht writes:

...the cracked dome of the skull, wiping down the empty sockets and the crooked lines between the teeth. Then they were breaking the thighbones, sawing through them with a cleaver so that the body could not walk in death to bring sickness to the living....

It is Natalia, however, the non-believer, who buries the man’s heart at a crossroads, thus releasing at last the soul of the dead man and bringing peace to both him and his family.

Despite all the myth and folktale, to Obreht’s credit, she never loses sight of the more mundane world in which her characters live their everyday lives:

Green shutters, a greenish flower...a stone canal ran up past the campground. Boxes in the windows, here and there a garage with a tarped car and maybe some chickens huddled on the hood. There were wheelbarrows full patching bricks or cement or manure…of laundry lines hung from house to house, heavy with sheets and headless shirts, pegged rows of socks. A soft-muzzled, black donkey was breathing softly, tied to a tree in someone's front yard.

I liked the rather gloomy premise of this novel, I loved Obreht’s gorgeous writing, and even though I’m not a fan of myths, folktales, or fairy tales, I did like the three story strands (Natalia, the “tiger’s wife” and the “deathless man”) that make up this book. I loved the sense of place the author managed to evoke. I really felt like I was in the Balkans while reading this beautiful book. Still, I felt the book had some problems.

I suppose what bothered me most about The Tiger’s Wife was the fact the Natalia’s grandfather remained little more than a cipher in the book, yet, for me at least, he was the character around whom everything else revolved. Both Natalia and her grandfather seemed, in the end, to be little more than vehicles through which to tell the story of the “tiger’s wife” and the story of the “deathless man.” Those two folk stories are wonderful stories, pulsing with dark life, but it’s the grandfather who anchors the book; it’s the grandfather I wanted to know more about; it’s the grandfather we learn so little about.

Yes, I realize that we turn to stories and folktales and fables in times of crises “to find meaning, to stitch together unconnected events in order to understand what was happening,” but I wanted to understand what was happening to Natalia and most especially, to Natalia’s grandfather. For me, Obreht didn’t use the two folktales to “stitch together” the life of the fascinating character that was Natalia’s grandfather. Maybe Obreht is telling us that she believes that even those we love the most remain unknowable. I’m not sure. I just felt it was wrong to set us up for something and then leave us hanging, for we never learn why Natalia’s grandfather has such love and passion for tigers just as we never learn why he clings to his old, battered copy of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Not getting to know the grandfather left me feeling I’d read a gorgeously written book, but one whose emotional center was missing.

In The Tiger’s Wife, sadly, the parts are greater than the whole. The three story strands never come together to form one beautiful, and emotionally moving, story. In the end, they remain three disparate story strands. They leave the reader with the sense of having read something beautiful, but also something rather pointless.

The book also loses momentum, even before we reach mid-point. I didn’t feel this was because the author was juggling three separate story strands – she seems to juggle separate story strands without trouble – but because the two folktales never seem to mesh well enough with the story of Natalia and her grandfather.

It’s Natalia’s grandfather, himself, who tells us, after he and his granddaughter have just witnessed an elephant wandering the streets of the City, that moments are meant to be cherished, that:

You have to think carefully about where you tell it and to whom. Who deserves to hear it?

Maybe, I wondered, Obreht felt that her readers were not worthy of hearing Natalia’s grandfather’s story in full. Maybe she felt we were only worthy of knowing Natalia’s grandfather obliquely, though the stories of the “tiger’s wife” and the “deathless man.” If that’s the case, then I feel bad, not for me, but for Natalia’s grandfather, for he seemed to be a man whose spirit was generous to a fault, a man who would want his story to be told and to live on.

And that is the big failing of this book. Obreht is, in many ways, a marvelous writer, even a luminous one. But in the end, people are interested in people. Though the folktales were interesting, without the character of the grandfather, they ring hollow. While the grandfather remained in the background, and the folktales took center stage, it should have been the other way around. Yes, The Tiger’s Wife is filled with beautiful writing, and it is “art,” but this reader wanted a little less art and a lot more humanity.


Recommended: The book gives us a beautiful sense of place, and at times, the prose is so good it’s luminous. The book is definitely “arty,” but I wanted a little less art and a lot more humanity. The three stars are for the beautiful evocation of place and atmosphere, and for the lovely writing. Sadly, the story told, as is, is only worth one star to me. You may be different, but I needed more of the grandfather. I do feel Obreht has a very bright future, and I’m looking forward to more from her. It’s rare to find such sophisticated writing in one still so young.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

I loved The Anatomy of Ghosts and wonder why I haven’t been reading all of Andrew Taylor’s books. I certainly intend to make up for what I’ve been missing.

The Anatomy of Ghosts takes place at eighteenth century (1786) Cambridge College and revolves around bookseller and bookbinder John Holdsworth. John is a tragic figure. After his small son, Georgie, drowns in the Thames, John cannot forgive himself for failing to save the boy, and his wife, Maria, also overcome with grief, spends all her time with a so-called psychic who claims to be able to contact Georgie’s spirit. This angers the grief-stricken John, but he doesn’t take his anger out on poor Maria. Instead, he pores it into the writing of a book denouncing the spirit world, a book known as “The Anatomy of Ghosts.”

Though the book is somewhat of a success, John Holdsworth cannot stem the downward spiral of his life. When Holdsworth informs his wife that the two must move due to finances and a series of business reversals, Maria refuses to leave the house where she and John lived with Georgie, and the next morning, she, too, is found dead in the Thames.

Maria’s death is declared an accident, and John, now broken and without funds and haunted by his own ghosts, is forced to sell his home and what little remains of his business. He has no idea where he’ll go or what he’ll do next. Enter Lady Anne Oldershaw.

Lady Anne Oldershaw has come to know of John Holdsworth through his book, the above-mentioned “The Anatomy of Ghosts.” Her beloved son, Frank, a student at the fictional Jerusalem College in Cambridge, has lost his wits after claiming to have seen the ghost of Sylvia Whichcote, a friend’s wife, one misty night, and sure enough, Sylvia Whichcote did drown that very night in the College’s Long Pond. Lady Anne believes that if the author of “The Anatomy of Ghosts” can convince her son that ghosts do not, in actuality, exist, and that the young man must have been the victim of a prank of some kind instead, Frank’s sanity can be restored. And, when John isn’t busy restoring Frank’s sanity, Lady Anne would like for him to organize her late husband’s library.

Lady Anne loves her son, and she may think him a nice young man, but the reader already knows different, for the reader has met Frank in Chapter One of this mystery, and knows that Frank Oldershaw is a member of Jerusalem College’s Holy Ghost Club, a club whose members are dedicated to drunkenness and debauchery, and none more so than Frank. But one can’t blame a mother for loving her son and wanting the best for him. I liked Lady Anne. Like all of Andrew Taylor’s characters, she’s complex and complicated and not wholly reliable.

At this point in his life, John Holdsworth has no other option but to accept Lady Anne’s offer, and off he goes to the corrupt and crumbling halls of Jerusalem College, hoping to disprove the existence of ghosts to Frank Oldershaw.

I loved the atmosphere Andrew Taylor created at Jerusalem College. It’s not only corrupt and crumbling, it’s claustrophobic and also rather gothic, with its swirling mists, dense fogs, and dark buildings that thrust their spires into skies leaden with dark clouds and loom ominously over all who stand below. I thought Taylor did an especially good job of bringing the asylum where Frank is being held to life. It made me squeamish and sometimes uneasy just reading about it, and though I love books, they don’t usually evoke a physical response in me. The atmosphere is the kind of atmosphere Sarah Waters evokes so well and has made a part of her signature style. I had thought that perhaps it was hers and hers alone, though it should come as no surprise to those familiar with his work that Andrew Taylor can conjure up this forbidding type of atmosphere, too, and conjure it well. History gave him ample material to work with, and Taylor certainly mined it well. The eighteenth century, Taylor writes, was not the most illustrious time for English universities:

Individual colleges followed their idiosyncratic paths, which were to guide them apart from their own statutes, which were at least two centuries out of date, as were the syllabuses that the universities prescribed for their students to study.

Most of the time, I felt as though I were reading an “old” book, one unearthed from the library of some Georgian manor house down in Kent or Somerset, rather than a modern mystery, written by a living author. The atmosphere was that good, that palpable, and that claustrophobic.

Taylor is also very skillful at educating his readers without his readers being aware that they are being educated. (And that’s the best way to educate some people.) I learned what a “night-soil” man was (and learned it would never be one of my career options), what a “gyp” was, and much about the unfair class divisions that existed at Cambridge during the eighteenth century. And speaking of “gyps,” I really liked the sly and wily Mulgrave, who refused to kowtow to those who considered themselves his “betters” simply because they had more money than he.

As Holdsworth seeks to “cure” Frank Oldershaw and convince the young man that whatever he saw, it couldn’t have been a ghost, he also comes to realize that Sylvia Whichcote’s death by drowning couldn’t possibly have been “self-murder” as the coroner concluded, nor could it have been an accident. But who could have killed her? John comes to the conclusion that it had to have been someone within Jerusalem College, itself. The gate to Jerusalem Lane was locked. The college was locked. The Master’s Lodge and its garden, which are situated within the College gates, were locked. The gate over the bridge was locked. If John Holdsworth can’t find Sylvia Whichcote’s murderer, then perhaps John Holdsworth needs to reassess his feeling about the existence of ghosts.

Taylor not only does a wonderful job with atmosphere in The Anatomy of Ghosts, he is very skillful when it comes to creating believable characters and choosing a narrator. (Most of the characters in this book are men; the one female character who stands out is Elinor Carbury, the long-suffering wife of the Master, and she isn't wholly likable since her motives are less than pure.) Like him or not, John Holdsworth was nothing less than the perfect narrator. As an outsider, he knows as little about the College as the reader does. Just as Holdsworth learns about the secret societies, the mysteries, and the inner workings of eighteenth century English university life, so, too, do we. And, as John obsesses about “curing” Frank Oldershaw, he, himself, becomes obsessed and the victim of more than one “haunting” by persons both living and dead.

So, is The Anatomy of Ghosts really a ghost story? In the truest sense of the word, yes, I think it is, though it doesn’t revolve around paranormal activity. It does, however, revolve around hauntings. In fact, the narrative is fairly drenched in hauntings, however those readers coming to this book expecting to find a “traditional” ghost story will be disappointed, even though the book is elegantly and stylishly written, for The Anatomy of Ghosts is more murder mystery than anything else, and if the reader approaches it as such, he or she is sure to find an enjoyable and unforgettable read. In fact, readers who’ve been lucky enough to read one of Taylor’s previous books, The American Boy, might begin comparing The Anatomy of Ghosts to that masterpiece of mystery and suspense, and to their delight, find that The Anatomy of Ghosts doesn’t come up wanting.

A few people have told me they found this book a bit slow. I didn’t. Yes, the period detail and the formal style of writing, so befitting a story set in the eighteenth century, does slow down the pace of the book a bit, but even in the novel’s slowest passages, Taylor is an author who knows how to build suspense and layer on intensity. And just when the reader thinks he/she has it all figured out, Taylor adds yet another twist.

The Anatomy of Ghosts is a book to read and savor, and then read again.


Recommended: Lovers of mysteries and especially historical mysteries can’t go wrong with this book. And, if you liked this book, you might also like Taylor’s novel, The American Boy.

Books Similar to This One: The Little Friend by Sarah Waters, Angelica by Arthur Phillips, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review - The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

I wasn’t going to read Sarah Blake’s novel, The Postmistress, not because I thought I wouldn’t like it, but because I already have so many books to read that I really didn’t have time for any more unless they promised to be spectacular. However, I was in the grocery store the other day, and there it was, and I have to admit, I’m a sucker for gorgeous cover art. The violet rose, the old letters, the promise of a story set in wartime, I really couldn’t resist.

The Postmistress revolves around three female characters: Iris James, the postmistress of Franklin, Massachusetts, a little seaside town at the end of Cape Cod; Emily Fitch, the naïve, new bride of Franklin’s doctor, Will Fitch; and Frankie Bard, a young, blonde American woman who works for Edward R. Murrow in London at Broadcasting House.

The book opens in 1940, and Iris James has been postmistress of Franklin for about a year. She takes her duties very seriously and sees herself as the “perfect vessel through which people’s thoughts and feelings could pass and upon which nothing snagged or got stuck.” At the age of forty, she’s resigned herself to a spinster’s life, until Harry Vale, the town mechanic, who spends his free time watching for German U-boats from the dunes of Cape Cod, takes a romantic interest in her.

Emma Fitch, who Iris first encounters while the former is reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina on a train, is a naïve, young woman, arriving in Franklin for the first time in order to settle down with Will Fitch, the man she married.

Frankie Bard is a young, blonde, leggy American from Greenwich Village, whose voice is heard in every home in Franklin, and in every home in America. She’s a “radio girl,” currently working for the acclaimed Edward R. Murrow at Broadcasting House in London. Frankie reports on the Blitz that devastates London and tries to put a human face on the war.

Will Fitch, probably the most important male character, is Franklin born and bred. His father owned the town bank, but he lost it, and most of the money belonging to the citizens of Franklin, during the crash of ’32. Armed with his medical degree, Will has returned to Franklin from his university studies in an attempt to make sure the sins of the father do not permanently stain the reputation of the son, and determined to give back to Franklin something of what his father took away. Our plans never seem to work out quite as we’d hoped, however, and so it is with Will Fitch. Something goes terribly wrong for the young doctor, and he feels the only place he can gain redemption is in London, trying to be of some use to those injured in the Blitz.

The life of Frankie Bard will intertwine briefly with the life of Will Fitch, but before the two part, Frankie will be entrusted by Will to deliver a letter to Emma back in Franklin. Frankie will also become privy to the real reason why Will left Franklin for London and why he almost certainly will never return.

Back in Franklin, Iris James also has a letter, also one that will impact the life of young Emma Fitch. Although it flies in the face of everything she believes in regarding the very sanctity of the United States Post Office, Iris secrets the letter in her desk and decides not to deliver it to the person for whom it was intended.

Although it seems as though Iris James will be the protagonist of The Postmistress, in truth, the reader learns very little about this likable woman. It is Frankie Bard, also likable, who really carries the book. The problem with that is the fact that it takes Blake approximately 250 pages to get to Frankie’s story, her part of the book, though Blake sets up Frankie’s story, and her theme, the unreliability of “truth telling” and the mistakes made in judgment during wartime on page 3: “Every story—love or war—is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.” While I liked Frankie, I did want to know more about Iris and Emma, especially during the first third of the book.

Even though I was drawn most to Iris, the postmistress of the title, and even though I felt her story could have been, and should have been, the most important in the novel, it is Frankie Bard’s story that carries the most punch and emotional involvement for the reader. When Frankie’s dreams of getting into continental Europe and discovering the real story of the Jewish displacement are realized, The Postmistress really becomes involving reading. Hauling around a thirty-pound recording device, Frankie travels by train across France in 1941 with Jewish refugees attempting to escape the Nazis and reach Spain or Portugal, where they hope to board a boat headed for the US or Canada. This makes for a very compelling storyline for the character of Frankie Bard, and it is she, rather than Iris James, who is the real soul of this book, and her story has both immediacy and heart. This part of Frankie’s story, in my opinion, contains Blake’s most poignant and most compelling writing:

But it was nearly impossible now to look away from what was clearly happening in Europe. The Jews were in a permanent, ceaseless pogrom. And the patrician habit of deflecting strong passion or insight first into calmer waters, to reflect, to take stock, belong to her mother’s generation. Fine for Mrs. Dalloway, impossible for Mrs. Woolf. A writer, a real writer, in possession of a story headed straight for its rapids, eyes on the water, paddling fast for the middle in order to see well, as closely as could be. In order to see like that, one had to entertain the fact of brutal, simple cruelty. The Germans were, in fact, gathering the Jews in camps and ghettos and simply letting them die there.

Sarah Blake, through Frankie Bard, wants to convey to her readers that Americans were too blasé during the years between 1933 and 1941, that Americans, and even many Europeans, simply went about their daily lives and remained oblivious to what was going on in the world as Hitler came to power in 1933. And of course, the world was too blasé. The world, as Sarah Blake and Frankie Bard insist, should have paid far more attention. Frankie’s passion about this causes the middle section of The Postmistress to soar, and the book is extremely emotionally affecting.

I thought Blake did a wonderful job in capturing the quaintness, and the mean-spiritedness that exists in almost every small town. That felt very authentic to me. However, I didn’t feel she did quite as good a job with either her dialogue, which I found adequate, but rather flat, or the characters in Franklin. As already mentioned, Iris isn’t developed enough; we learn far too little about her. Emma, I think, was meant to be sweet and naïve, but comes across as far too wishy-washy. I think Blake should have given the woman a little backbone. Readers are usually attracted more to strong characters who act than they are to weak, passive ones. Emma tells us that she “felt invisible” before meeting her husband, Will:

For the first time in her life, with Will, she had come to see herself because she’d look down and see herself – her waist, her arms, the bone on her wrist – in his hands. Because he’d been watching her. Like a fairy kissed into being, or the mermaid suddenly walking....

Women today, I think, need more than a man’s admiration to feel whole, but it really wasn’t a stretch for me to see a woman in the early 1940s feeling the way Emma felt. What I couldn’t buy, however, was Emma’s lack of action when Will tells her he’s going to London. Will’s argument, after all, wasn’t very persuasive:

Sweetheart, there are people over there who need help, who need another pair of hands, and I can bring them. That’s the deal. That’s what you were saying without saying it right out. When we know there are people in need, right now, in the same breath as what we are breathing, we cannot look away. It is not abstract. We have to go. That is humanity. The whole thing relies on it. Human beings do not look away.

Sure, decent human beings do not look away, and we all help if we can, but decent human beings also do not leave their new brides on their own immediately after marriage. I wanted to say, “But what about Emma, Will? What about your wife? Your new wife?” I would have thought Emma would have said the same, would have spoken up for herself, but Emma refuses to actively support Will’s decision, and she also doesn’t tell him she’s pregnant and needs him at home, with her.

I also couldn’t buy the fact that so many Americans were puzzling about the meaning of war:

There were things being broken we had no American names for. There was war. What did it mean, War?

WWI had taken place only twenty-two years previously, so presumably many Americans would be intimately familiar with “what was broken” and “the meaning of War.”

All-in-all, The Postmistress seems very well researched and very competently written, but it lacks something that gives it a needed punch. WWII stories have been told time and time again. If a writer is going to bring us yet another one, he or she needs to make it extraordinary. While I thought The Postmistress was a good book, in the end, I didn’t think it was extraordinary, and I didn’t feel it had anything new to offer.


Recommended: Only if you feel you must read every book by Sarah Blake or every book written during this time period. If you do decide to read it, please know that it is, for the most part, very competently written.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Book Review - Classics - Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

Absalom, Absalom is one of William Faulkner’s later novels, having been published in 1936, and, strangely, two of its narrators, Quentin Compson and his father, Mr. Compson, both “died” in an earlier Faulkner work, The Sound and the Fury. The Sound and the Fury detailed the decline and fall of the Compson family, while Absalom, Absalom details the fall of another Southern dynasty, that of Thomas Sutpen, a self-made man.

The destruction of the South, and the reasons for this destruction, were questions that Faulkner explored in most of his work. Although quite arrogant and snobbish, himself, Faulkner was well aware that racism was ultimately the downfall of the South. His black characters were never fully developed persons, one of his very few failings, but to his credit, he didn’t shy away from portraying slavery in all its horror. In fact, many historians have made mention of the fact that more can be learned about the post-Civil War South from Faulkner than can be learned from history books.

Absalom, Absalom is one of Faulkner’s most fascinating books, but it is also one of the most complex. In it, Faulkner shows us, though multiple narrators, how history can be manipulated, depending on who is relating that history. The three narrators of Absalom, Absalom, Quentin Compson, a twenty-year-old Harvard college student, his father, Mr. Compson, a born-and-bred Southerner, and Rosa Coldfield, a strange and embittered woman, all relate different versions of the legend of Thomas Sutpen, and all are colored by the individual narrator’s memories and preferences.

The story opens in 1909, as Quentin Compson is summoned to the home of Rosa Coldfield in Jefferson, Mississippi. Rosa, for reasons we will learn later in the novel, is desirous of telling Quentin her version of the legend of Thomas Sutpen, a mysterious man who, though his story is being related by others, still remains the heart and soul of Absalom, Absalom.

Thomas Sutpen came to Jefferson, Mississippi in 1833, purchased one hundred acres of land and built a magnificent plantation, a plantation he named “Sutpen’s Hundred.” Eventually, Thomas becomes one of the wealthiest planters in the area, and desiring respectability, he marries Rosa Coldfield’s older sister, Ellen, with whom he has two children, Henry and Judith. Henry and Judith grow up with privilege and all the luxuries money can buy. However, when Henry enrolls in the University of Mississippi and become friends with another student named Charles Bon, disaster strikes the Sutpen family and things will never again be the same.

If the title of this book, Absalom, Absalom sounds familiar to you, it should. Faulkner took it from the Book of Samuel (18:33). “Absalom, Absalom” is the anguished cry of King David upon learning of the death of his beloved son. Faulkner drew heavily on this biblical story in crafting his novel, and indeed, the novel is far easier to understand if one first familiarizes himself or herself with the biblical story in the Book of Samuel.

Those new to Faulkner will find the structure of Absalom, Absalom quite different from that of conventional novels. The narrative is circular, convoluted, and fragmented and Faulkner presents almost the entire “plot” within the book’s first two chapters. There are constant changes in narrator, form, and style that can be quite disorienting to some readers. Faulkner, however, intended this disorientation. While the story of Thomas Sutpen forms the events around which the novel revolves, Thomas Sutpen’s “story” really wasn’t of prime importance to Faulkner. This is neither a plot nor character driven novel, but a thematic one, and one of the major themes is the quixotic and malleable quality of memory. It is for this reason that Faulkner reveals most of the “story” in the first two chapters. He doesn’t want us to read this novel, wanting to find out “what’s going to happen next;” he wants us to read it and learn how people create history through individual interpretation.

The theme of memory is tied to Faulkner’s overriding questions about the decline and fall of the South. True Southerners live with the memory of the fact that the South lost the Civil War. They live with the terrible legacy of slavery. More than any other part of US, I think, the South, and especially the Deep South, where this novel is set, lives with a tragic past that is still instrumental in shaping its future. Faulkner wanted to explore the emotional resonance of the post-Civil War South; he really wasn’t concerned with providing us with an accurate portrayal of historical facts. He also wanted to explore the many issues surrounding race and the South’s seeming inability to move forward and put the past behind it. For all of his snobbishness, Faulkner, himself, realized that unless and until the South accepts the fact that race does not matter, it will remain “stuck” in the past and unable to move forward.

The first chapter of Absalom, Absalom is narrated by Rosa Coldfield, and we can see, almost immediately, that she’s a narrator who remembers even more selectively than do most. Her memories are fragmented; her thoughts jump from one subject and then loop back; she is highly emotional and subjective. I think readers new to Faulkner will be put off by the complexity encountered in this first chapter, but those of us who love this author will relish what he’s accomplished and turn the page in anticipation of more.

After listening to Rosa Coldfield, Quentin Compson returns home, and the next two chapters are narrated by his father, Mr. Compson. Mr. Compson is a very different kind of narrator than is Rosa Coldfield. He’s far more straightforward, more linear, and far less emotional. At first, the reader might be fooled into thinking Mr. Compson’s narrative of Thomas Sutpen is the more objective, but, as we learn later, this isn’t necessarily true. In some ways, Mr. Compson is just as unreliable as is Rosa Coldfield. Readers will have a hard time figuring out just who Thomas Sutpen was, for Rosa Coldfield depicts him as egomaniacal and given to violence while Mr. Compson paints a far more favorable picture of him. The truth, we are beginning to learn, is going to be difficult to discern.

And, in Chapter Three, Faulkner again returns to his fragmented, circular, convoluted way of narrating. In addition, while Rosa Coldfield’s narration contained standard punctuation, with quotation marks around the dialogue, Mr. Compson’s chapters do not. Even though this may seem affected to someone unfamiliar with Faulkner, it is but part of his genius and causes us to place more credibility in the story of Mr. Compson than in the story of Rosa Coldfield. Faulkner “addicts” will also recognize the juxtaposition of straightforward, linear storytelling with fragmented, convoluted narration as being one of this author’s hallmarks. Those who have read The Sound and the Fury will no doubt be expecting it. From this point on, Faulkner will deal, not with Thomas Sutpen’s rise to wealth and power, but with his fall from grace, and he will ask the reader to participate in the story, to help unravel why Sutpen’s fall occurred and why it was inevitable.

By the end of Chapter Four, the complacent reader will feel that he or she is now in possession of all the facts surrounding the life of Thomas Sutpen, but that reader should beware. Faulkner was one of the greatest writers who ever lived; he doesn’t make things that easy for his readers. Embedded in the middle of Chapter Four, is the most famous sentence in all of Absalom, Absalom and the key to understanding this great and defining novel of the South, words spoken by Mr. Compson:

They are there, yet something is missing; they are like a chemical formula exhumed along with the letters from that forgotten chest, bring them together in the proportions called for, but nothing happens, you re-read, tedious and intent, poring, making sure that you have forgotten nothing, made no miscalculation; you bring them together again and again nothing happens; just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against the turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs.

The story of Thomas Sutpen then shifts back to the viewpoint of Rosa Coldfield and Faulkner really beings layering, developing his themes, bringing his characters to life. As we read Rosa’s words, we realize that Faulkner is actually telling us more about Thomas Sutpen with what Rosa leaves out of her narration rather than what she puts in. Yes, this does make Absalom, Absalom a more complex and demanding book, but it makes it a far richer one as well. And, with Rosa’s second chapter, which falls at about the book’s midpoint, Faulkner beings to weave strains of the southern Gothic tradition into his novel as well. We learn that the story of Thomas Sutpen has not yet come to a close, for at the chapter’s end, Rosa Coldfield reveals that “something” has been living in the attic of the ruined Sutpen mansion for four years. In the hands of a lesser author, this revelation could have come off as clichéd and silly; in Faulkner’s it brings the story from the past into the present and heightens our desire to keep turning the pages, to keep creating the narrative along with the author’s characters.

Absalom, Absalom is a novel told in two distinct parts, though there is no formal separation other than standard chapter breaks. Chapter Five ends the first part and Chapter Six begins the second. In this part of the book, which takes place several months later than the first, at Harvard, we hear Quentin Compson as narrator for the first time as he talks to his college roommate, a Canadian named Shreve McCannon. This chapter, rather than concentrating on the different ways Rosa Coldfield and Mr. Compson have remade history, presents new information for the reader to digest, and it presents it, at least initially, through the character of Shreve. Shreve is curious about the South and he wants Quentin to explain it to him. Quentin chooses to do so by telling Shreve about the legend of Thomas Sutpen. The new information also develops Faulkner’s theme of the danger and immorality of racism more fully and completely.

One of the new pieces of information we are given is the fact that Thomas Sutpen had been married prior to his arrival in Jefferson, and Faulkner deepens the mystery of this already mysterious man by letting us know that there was a reason he left that marriage, a reason that didn’t fit in with his design to become a self-made man:

...they deliberately withheld from me the one fact which I have reason to know they were aware would have caused me to decline the entire matter, otherwise they would not have withheld it from me—a fact which I did not learn until after my son was born…this new fact rendered it impossible that this woman and child be incorporated in my design.

In the final two chapters of the book, Quentin gives us his own version of history making as he relates the story of Thomas Sutpen to Shreve McCannon. Together, the two men attempt to piece together bits of the legend and arrive at what they perceive to be, the truth. But is it the truth? Faulkner doesn’t really tell us, for he insists that we participate in the writing of history as well, even the histories of his books. Faulkner does bring Thomas Sutpen to life most vividly at the end of his book, however, and we come to understand why he made the choices he did and how he fell so far from grace. He also returns Sutpen to his roots, if not physically, then at least spiritually.

Although the concluding chapters of Absalom, Absalom are made up largely of conjecture and speculation on the part of Quentin and Shreve, it is fascinating speculation and it is filled with irony. These chapters raise almost more questions than they answer, especially about the very early years of Thomas Sutpen’s life, and they develop Faulkner’s theme of the peril of racism even more fully. They let us know that the life of Thomas Sutpen, as well as the life of Quentin Compson and that of the entire South is, and probably will be, forever haunted by the ghosts of its sins against humanity.


Recommended: Very highly, but though this book contains beautiful, convoluted, flowing prose, the reader needs to be aware that it also contains a highly complex and fragmented narrative structure.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Writing Tips - Learn From the Pros! Writing Tips From Writers - Part Two

Richard Ford

1. Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer's a good idea.

2. Don't have children.

3. Don't read your reviews.

4. Don't write reviews. (Your judgment's always tainted.)

5. Don't have arguments with your wife in the morning, or late at night.

6. Don't drink and write at the same time.

7. Don't write letters to the editor. (No one cares.)

8. Don't wish ill on your colleagues.

9. Try to think of others' good luck as encouragement to yourself.

10. Don't take any s*** if you can possibly help it.

Jonathan Franzen

1. The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.

2. Fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money.

3. Never use the word "then" as a conjunction – we have "and" for this purpose. Substituting "then" is the lazy or tone-deaf writer's non-solution to the problem of too many "ands" on the page.

4. Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.

5. When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.

6. The most purely autobiographical fiction requires pure invention. Nobody ever wrote a more autobiographical story than The Metamorphosis.

7. You see more sitting still than chasing after.

8. It's doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.

9. Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.

10. You have to love before you can be relentless.

Esther Freud

1. Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn't use any and I slipped up during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.

2. A story needs rhythm. Read it aloud to yourself. If it doesn't spin a bit of magic, it's missing something.

3. Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.

4. Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don't let anything else interfere. Afterward it won't matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.

5. Don't wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.

6. Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they'll know it too.

7. Never forget, even your own rules are there to be broken.

Neil Gaiman

1. Write.

2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

3. Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you've never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.

5. Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.

6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.

7. Laugh at your own jokes.

8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

David Hare

1. Write only when you have something to say.

2. Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome.

3. Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.

4. If nobody will put your play on, put it on yourself.

5. Jokes are like hands and feet for a painter. They may not be what you want to end up doing but you have to master them in the meanwhile.

6. Theatre primarily belongs to the young.

7. No one has ever achieved consistency as a screenwriter.

8. Never go to a TV personality festival masquerading as a literary festival.

9. Never complain of being misunderstood. You can choose to be understood, or you can choose not to.

10. The two most depressing words in the English language are "literary fiction."

PD James

1. Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.

2. Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

3. Don't just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

4. Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.

5. Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Book Review - Swamplandia by Karen Russell

If you read “Zoetrope” in 2006, you might have read a short story titled “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” which featured an imaginatively strange setting in the Florida Everglades, a resourceful young heroine, and a strange problem. If you liked the story, you’ll be delighted to read that its author, Karen Russell, has expanded it into a full length novel, Swamplandia!.

The protagonist of Swamplandia! is the charming and engaging thirteen-year-old Ava Bigtree, the same Ava who was featured in Russel’s 2006 short story. And she’s just as charming in the book as she was in the story. Ava, who is definitely reminiscent of Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is the youngest of the Bigtree family of Ten Thousand Islands, Florida. Since her birth, the family’s 100-acre reptile theme park, Swamplandia! has been Ava’s only home. She loves poking around her family’s so-called “history,” which is set forth on the walls of Swamplandia!’s “museum.”

In 1932, the Bigtree family patriarch, Ernest Schedrach, who was from Ohio, was suckered into buying a parcel of land in the Everglades that was under six feet of swamp water. Ernest and his wife, Risa, however, fell in love with the swamp and developed an immediate affinity for their new neighbors, the swamp’s alligators. Despite the fact that he had no Native American ancestry, Ernest assumed a Native American identity and became Grandpa Sawtooth Bigtree. He and Risa transformed their newly-acquired swamp property into an alligator wrestling theme park called Swamplandia!, complete with ninety-eight alligators all named Seth and a gift shop. It wasn’t long until Swamplandia!, which was open “365 days a year, rain or shine, no federal holidays, no Christian or pagan interruptions,” became the “Number One Gator-Themed Park and Swamp Café in the area.”

As Russel’s debut novel opens, Ava Bigtree – along with her sister, Osceola, and her brother Kiwi – have just lost their mother, Hilola to ovarian cancer. The thirty-six-year-old Hilola was also Swamplandia’s! main act, and lost in his fog of grief over the death of his wife, Chief Bigtree neglects to amend the park’s promotional materials to let his customers know that they won’t be seeing the main attraction any longer. At first, visitors to Swamplandia!, many of whom have traveled many miles, though sorry they won’t be seeing Hilola do her death-defying alligator swim through a gator pit “planked with great grey and black bodies,” are sympathetic toward her widower and her children. As time goes on, and the park teeters on the brink of foreclosure, the visitors become angrier and less sympathetic, and Chief Bigtree and his children become more unglued by their grief. Eventually, each of the four finds his or her own way of dealing with the loss of Hilola.

When days perusing moldy books on the local library boat, which was abandoned in the ‘50s, begin to get boring, Ava’s frost-haired, violet-eyed, sixteen-year-old sister, the dreamy Ossie decides it might be fun to fool around with a homemade Ouija board and try to conjure up the ghost of the recently and dearly departed Hilola. Ava, who misses her mother dearly, goes along with the project and is crushed when it doesn’t work out as planned. Ossie, however, has other ideas. She decides if she can’t conjure up Hilola’s spirit, she’ll conjure up a few dead boyfriends for herself instead. This is all too much for Ava, who reports Ossie’s doings to their father. For Chief Bigtree, this proves to be the last straw, and he takes off for the mainland and an extended “business meeting.”

Seventeen-year-old Kiwi, who is bookish, and who would rather spend his time studying for his SATs, departs for the mainland as well, determined to make enough money to save Swamplandia! He gets a job at, where else? A theme park. Hilola’s demise has coincided with the rise of a new, more modern theme park known as the “World of Darkness,” one whose guests are called “Lost Souls.” They can swim in a pool called the “Lake of Fire,” buy inflatable beach balls called “Brimstones,” and eat at “Beelzebub’s Snack Bar.” Yes, “World of Darkness” is a lot like the Underworld has been portrayed, and Kiwi joins the janitorial crew, making minimum wage, until fate intervenes with other plans for his life.

Meantime, Ossie really has managed to conjure up a ghost, Louis Thanksgiving, a canal digger, dead since the 1930s, with whom she elopes to the Underworld. Ava, in the hopes of maybe meeting her mother and the definite need to rescue her sister, takes off with a creepy, feather-bedecked guy known as Bird Man. Together, Ava and Bird Man scoot around the mangrove swamps in a fourteen-foot skiff looking for the route to the Underworld and Ossie, a route Bird Man promises Ava he knows. But – beware of strangers bearing gifts. There is much more to Bird Man than what initially appears to be.

With Grandpa Sawtooth in a nursing home and Chief Bigtree off on the mainland indefinitely, Swamplandia! becomes what I think Russell wanted it to be: the story of three lost siblings. I didn’t mind the chapters that alternated between Ava’s point-of-view and Kiwi’s point-of-view, however, while Ava is a fantastic narrator, Russell didn’t seem to quite know where she was going with Kiwi. He’s an engaging kid, but his narrative just sort of drifts. I think he was along for the ride to lighten things up a bit (this is not a comedic book; the story of Ossie and Ava is really quite dark), and at times, he does do that. However, too much of the time, he’s just floundering, like a fish out of water.

The bulk of the book concerns Ava’s search, with Bird Man, for Ossie, and is an exploration of the bonds sisters share. I thought Russell did a good job of conveying sisterly love, but at times, Ava’s journey got bogged down in the swamp, so to speak. Now, I love to read novels in which the author shows a love for the land. I love highly descriptive writing. So, to some extent, I really appreciated Russell’s details of the flora and fauna of the Florida Everglades. But when one is reading a book whose theme is the bond among sisters and brothers there comes a point, regarding flora and fauna, where “too much really is too much.” All the talk of marls, gharials, anhingas, and melaleucas was fine – for a while – but eventually, it tires the reader out.

Russell’s descriptive sentences, though, were well-written, there’s no denying that. She’s great at describing the Everglades “leafy catacombs;” its “rotten-egg smell [that] rose off the pools of water that collected beneath the mangrove’s stilted roots.” In Swamplandia!, water “bunches and wrinkles” like “black silk.” A river becomes a “looking glass for stars.” Mosquitoes are “tiny particles of an old, dissolved drain...something prehistoric and very scary that sips you in without ever knowing what you had been.” Ten Thousand Islands was made up of “vernal currents, an air as lushly populated as seawater, deer flies and damselflies, a whole cosmos of mosquitoes: all this iridescent life....”

I loved that; I just wish Russell had given us a little less of it. All-in-all, it was just “too much of a good thing.” It needed to be woven into the plot more. As it is, it slows the pace of the book far too much. The suspense began to really lag. I began to yawn and put the book aside, despite Russell’s energetic and robust prose, wondering when she was going to get back to Ava and Bird Man and their quest for Ossie once more. I wanted to read a book about people, people in trouble, quirky people, not a naturalist’s guide to the swamps. Some professional reviewers have said that Russell “maintains expert control over the narrative.” Obviously, I don’t agree. I thought parts of it got away from her. Far too many times I had to ask myself, “Where in the world is this book going?”

And then there’s the ending. After letting her story bog down in the middle for so long, after letting its struggle for meaning be so transparent, and after asking her readers to suspend their disbelief regarding so much, the ending feels forced and rushed and more than a bit too pat. I don’t need everything spelled out, but I felt as though a door had been slammed in my face. The ending was that abrupt. And what about that “bad thing” that happens to Ava? I couldn’t buy it. It seemed to be chosen by the author more for its shock value than because it was inevitable and organic to the story’s plot.

Still, there’s plenty to like in Swamplandia!. Yes, the book is quirky, and if all the characters had been developed to the degree that Ava was, and if the pacing had been much, much better, this might have been a book able to rival the fabulous Geek Love or Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. It is imaginative, and it does show flashes of true brilliance, but only flashes. Russell has a real gift for eccentricity, but I think she has to remember that eccentricity for eccentricity’s sake never works. The humanity of the characters can’t get lost among the quirkiness. For the most part, Russell manages this delicate balancing act, especially with regard to Ava, though she could have – and should have – done better where the other characters are concerned.

Swamplandia! was obviously written with a great deal of love. Those who enjoy quirky characters in even quirkier situations will certainly find something to like – and maybe even love – in this book. In the long run, however, I think Swamplandia!, unlike Geek Love, is going to be more of a phenomenon than a lasting work of art. While I give this book four stars for imagination, I can only give it 2 for structure and overall craft. I’d give it 2.5 overall.

I wanted to love this book. I really did. But though I adored Ava, and though I really like Ossie and Kiwi, Russell just made loving the book impossible with the deficiencies in craft. Darn.


Recommended: If you’re really into quirky books and quirky characters and don’t mind a slow middle and a rushed ending you might like this one. The character of Ava is well drawn and endearing. Be aware, though, that the ending is very abrupt, totally unbelievable, and will probably leave you wanting to throw the book across the room.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Writing Tips - Learn From the Pros! Writing Tips From Writers - Part One

Elmore Leonard:

1. Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a character's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues: they can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."

3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ... he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "American and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that brings the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Diana Athill

1. Read it aloud to yourself because that's the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).

2. Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.

3. You don't always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they'd be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it's the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)

Margaret Atwood

1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can't sharpen it on the plane, because you can't take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.

2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.

3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.

4. If you're using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.

5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.

6. Hold the reader's attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don't know who the reader is, so it's like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.

7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.

8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.

9. Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

10. Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualisation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

Roddy Doyle

1. Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

2. Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph –

3. Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it's the job.

4. Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.

5. Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don't go near the online bookies – unless it's research.

6. Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, e.g., "horse", "ran", "said".

7. Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It's research.

8. Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.

9. Do not search for the book you haven't written yet.

10. Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – "He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego." But then get back to work.

Helen Dunmore

1. Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue.

2. Listen to what you have written. A dud rhythm in a passage of dialogue may show that you don't yet understand the characters well enough to write in their voices.

3. Read Keats's letters.

4. Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn't work, throw it away. It's a nice feeling, and you don't want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories, which have everything in them except the life they need.

5. Learn poems by heart.

6. Join professional organisations that advance the collective rights of authors.

7. A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.

8. If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.

9. Don't worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed "What will survive of us is love".

Geoff Dyer

1. Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over – or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: "I'm writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job." Publisher: "That's exactly what makes me want to stay in my job."

2. Don't write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I've developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.

3. Don't be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.

4. If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great autocorrect files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: "Niet" becomes "Nietzsche", "phoy" becomes "photography" and so on. Genius!

5. Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.

6. Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

7. Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it's a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It's only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I always have to feel that I'm bunking off from something.

8. Beware of clichés. Not just the clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.

9. Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don't follow it.

10. Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to perseverance. But writing is all about perseverance. You've got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That's what writing is to me: a way of postponing the day when I won't do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.

Anne Enright

1. The first 12 years are the worst.

2. The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.

3. Only bad writers think that their work is really good.

4. Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.

5. Write whatever way you like. Fiction is made of words on a page; reality is made of something else. It doesn't matter how "real" your story is, or how "made up": what matters is its necessity.

6. Try to be accurate about stuff.

7. Imagine that you are dying. If you had a terminal disease would you finish this book? Why not? The thing that annoys this 10-weeks-to-live self is the thing that is wrong with the book. So change it. Stop arguing with yourself. Change it. See? Easy. And no one had to die.

8. You can also do all that with whiskey.

9. Have fun.

10. Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Book Review - Classics - The Leopard by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

For me, The Leopard is definitely the greatest book ever written by an Italian author as well as being one of the ten or twelve greatest books of all time. The title character, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina (based on di Lampedusa’s great-grandfather), is one of the most perfectly drawn characters in all of literature. He’s also something of an enigma. We shouldn’t like Don Fabrizio, but we do. He is, after all, narcissistic and autocratic. But, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, amateur astronomer, is also irresistible. Though he falls into rages when his mood is dark, ignores his kind and dutiful wife, Maria Stella, and even uses his own priest as a "cover" for his illicit trysts, still, against our better judgment, we care about him. We first meet Don Fabrizio as he’s leading his family in prayer:

Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

The daily recital of the Rosary was over. For half an hour the steady voice of the Prince had recalled the Glorious and the Sorrowful Mysteries; for half an hour other voices had interwoven a lilting hum from which, now and again, would chime some unlikely word: love, virginity, death; and during that hum the whole aspect of the rococo drawing room seemed to change; even the parrots spreading iridescent wings over the silken walls appeared abashed; even the Magdalen between the two windows looked a penitent and not just a handsome blonde lost in some dubious daydream, as she usually was.

The Leopard opens in May 1860, a pivotal moment in Sicilian history, for it was on May 11, 1869 that Garibaldi and "The Thousand" landed at Marsala on Sicily’s western coast. Don Fabrizio’s Sicily is the Sicily of the Risorgimento, and although Don Fabrizio knows that Garibaldi and his followers will eventually be triumphant, he still mourns the passing of the old ways and the absorption of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Sicily and Naples) into one unified Italy.

In stark contrast to his ambitious, Garibaldi supporting nephew, Tancredi, on whom Don Fabrizio pins his hopes for the continuation of his line, the Prince of Salina is politically conservative (when it suits his purposes), and like most Sicilians, definitely fatalistic. Although his personal motto in life is "...everything must change so that everything can stay the same," in keeping with his inborn fatalism, he possesses not one fiber of Machiavellian intrigue or motivation to bring that change about. On the contrary, Don Fabrizio feels that all of us are powerless against the face of change, just as we are all powerless against the rules that govern our culture or our place of birth:

This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments to the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us…All these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.

Don Fabrizio believes that Sicilians, true Sicilians, are so obsessed with death, that they crave it even to the point of having "a love affair with death":

Our sensuality is a hankering for oblivion, our shooting and knifing a hankering for death; our languor, our exotic vices, a hankering for voluptuous immobility, that is for death again.

Garibaldi, in this book, is always "offstage," and the battles, the marches, and the protests, like Garibaldi, himself, are only alluded to. This is Don Fabrizio’s story and Don Fabrizio’s book. Rather than show us scenes in which Garibaldi is present, di Lampedusa chose, instead, to detail a fascinating and dying way of life through the eyes of an equally fascinating and dying man:

Don Fabrizio had always known that sensation. For a dozen years or so he had been feeling as if the vital fluid, the faculty of existing, life itself in fact and perhaps even the will to go on living, were ebbing out of him slowly but steadily, as grains of sand cluster and then line up one by one, unhurried, unceasing, before the narrow neck of an hourglass. In some moments of intense activity or concentration this sense of continual loss would vanish, to reappear impassively in brief instants of silence or introspection; just as a constant buzzing in the ears or the ticking of a pendulum superimposes itself when all else is silent, assuring us of always being there, watchful, even when we do not hear it.

In detailing the decay of Don Fabrizio’s life, as well as his way of life, The Leopard also details the progress of the Risorgimento. Italy is changing. Sicily is changing. The old way of life is passing away and Don Fabrizio doesn’t like it, but, he asks, what can he do? The nature of life, he knows, is change, and no one, not even the autocratic and leonine Don Fabrizio can change the nature of life. As Don Fabrizio ages and moves toward death, so does the Sicilian aristocracy to which he belongs. This causes Don Fabrizio to be a metaphor for the "old Sicily" and causes The Leopard to be a very sad, but a very moving, book.

The Leopard is, in many ways, a key to unlocking the source of the fatalism, sensuality, and languor that are Sicily, even today. For Sicilians are Italians, but they are a breed apart, as unlike Romans as are the Milanese. To know Italy, however, one must, it is said, experience the heart and soul of Sicily. In di Lampedusa’s highly descriptive writing, we feel this island’s sunburned landscape, the ruins, the decay of the palazzi, the atmosphere of desolation, despair, and death, as well as the mouthwatering confections of the pasticerria. We see Sicily through the eyes of Don Fabrizio, and we begin to know the island as he knows it; we begin to love it as he loves it:

The trees were only three, in truth, and eucalyptus at that, scruffiest of Mother Nature’s children. But they were also the first seen by the Salina family since leaving Bisacquino at six that morning. It was now eleven, and for the last five hours all they had set eyes on were bare hillsides flaming yellow under the sun. Trots over level ground had alternated briefly with long, slow trudges uphill and then careful shuffles down; both trudge and trot merging, anyway, into the constant jingle of harness bells, imperceptible, now, to the dazed senses, except as sound equivalent of the blazing landscape. They had passed through crazed-looking villages washed in palest blue; crossed dry river beds over fantastic bridges; skirted sheer precipices which no sage and broom could temper. Never a tree, never a drop of water; just sun and dust, the temperature must have been well over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Those desiccated trees yearning away under bleached sky bore many a message: that they were now within a couple of hours of their journey’s end; that they were coming into the family estates; that they could lunch, and perhaps even wash their faces in the verminous waters of the well.

The Leopard is a quiet, meditative book, slow paced and filled with many long, lyrical passages that I simply savored. We retreat from Garibaldi’s battlefields into the shuttered, cool interiors of Don Fabrizio’s palazzo and we experience with him his melancholia, his pain, his regret. We get to know him, really know him, and, though we can’t approve of all he does, somehow, we come to love him and want the best for him. His sadness becomes our sadness; his regret, our regret.

This is also a book replete with detail of an aristocracy that flourished when Don Fabrizio was young and is now, in the book’s present, taking its last gasp. We’re treated to pictures of formal dinners, lavish balls, political strife and religious beliefs, the latter told mostly from the point of view of Father Pirrone, Don Fabrizio’s long suffering Jesuit confessor and sparring partner. The ball set piece near the book’s conclusion, as well as Don Fabrizio’s reaction when surveying the rooms of his decaying palazzo, is especially vivid and will give you some idea of the elegantly sensuous prose that is found in this exquisite book:

The ballroom was all golden: smooth on the cornices, uneven on the door frames, in a pale, almost silvery design against a darker background on the door panels and on the shutters annulling the windows, thus conferring on the room the look of some superb jewel case shut off from an unworthy world. It was not the flashy gilding which decorators slap on nowadays, but a faded gold, pale as the hair of Nordic children, determinedly hiding its value under a muted use of precious material intended to let beauty be seen and cost forgotten. Here and there on the panels were knots of rococo flowers in a color so faint as to seem just an ephemeral pink reflected from the chandeliers.

That solar hue, that variegation of gleam and shade, made Don Fabrizio’s heart ache as he stood black and stiff in a doorway: this eminently patrician room reminded him of country things; the chromatic scale was the same as that of the vast wheat fields around Donnafugata, rapt, begging pity from the tyrannous sun; in this room too, as on his estates in mid-August, the harvest had been gathered long before, stacked elsewhere, leaving, as here, a sole reminder in the color of stubble burned and useless now. The notes of the waltz in the warm air seemed to him but a stylization of the incessant winds harping their own sorrows on the parched surfaces, today, yesterday, tomorrow, forever and forever. The crowd of dancers, among whom he could count so many near to him in blood if not in heart, began to seem unreal, made up of material from which are woven lapsed memories, more elusive even than the stuff of disturbing dreams. From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal....

Every time I read The Leopard it makes my heart ache. I didn’t find it at all difficult to empathize with a man who’s watching his culture and his fortune wither and die, and who’s in the process of losing everything he holds, and has always held, dear. And this empathy is, I think, the key to the timelessness of The Leopard and the quality that lifts it out of the realm of even "great literature" and into the realm of "a genuine masterpiece." Without the character of Don Fabrizio, The Leopard would be "just another story," albeit a very good one, of Italian history.

The Leopard ends on the same sad and meditative note on which it began. Don Fabrizio acknowledges the fact that he has been, indeed a leopard, and one who thought himself, perhaps, far more important than he really was. Furthermore, he doesn’t expect the future to hold much more promise than did the past:

We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals, hyenas. And all of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.

Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, might not have been a truly good man or a truly honorable one, but he was, however, a man possessed of much dignity. He was a leopard. A leopard who remained true to his convictions even unto the end of his days. For that, he won my eternal admiration just as this book has won my love.


Recommended: Definitely. The main character of Don Fabrizio is one of the beautifully drawn in all of literature. This is a beautiful book that captures perfectly a unique moment in Italian/Sicilian history.

Note: The Luchino Visconti film based on the book is also wonderful.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book Review - The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli’s debut novel, is quite impressive, but not without its faults. It revolves around neophyte photojournalist, Helen Adams, who we first meet in 1975 in Saigon as the North Vietnamese begin to roll through the city, and the city falls. I guess I shouldn’t call Adams a neophyte photojournalist because she arrived in Vietnam in 1965, an idealistic California girl, fresh out of college, her only previous encounter with war being her father’s tales of fighting in the Korean War and her brother’s letters home. However, rather shockingly, her only experience with photography has been a high school class. When Helen arrives in Vietnam, she’s so naïve she doesn’t even know how to load her camera and has to ask one of her male counterparts to do it for her.

One the whole, The Lotus Eaters was nicely written, though Soli does seem to be asking her readers to “suspend their disbelief” a tad too much, as when Sam Darrow – a renowned and critically acclaimed photojournalist – takes Helen under his wing to “teach her the ropes.” Helen, while not achieving Darrow’s critical acclaim – he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner – does begin to make a name for herself, if only because she’s the Vietnam War’s first female photojournalist.

Predictably, Helen and the unhappily married Darrow not only work together, they begin a passionate love affair as well. Helen wants the couple to leave Vietnam; she wants Darrow to begin a new life with her, back in the relative safety of the US. Darrow, however, is consumed by his work, and he’s passionate about recording the events that are taking place in Vietnam. Eventually, Helen begins to be consumed as well:

Before, there had been this small, shiny thing inside her that had kept her immune from what was happening, and now she knew it had only been her ignorance, and she felt herself falling into a deep, dark place.

I suppose we could have predicted that The Lotus Eaters would revolve around those who were consumed with recording the happenings in Vietnam. In Greek mythology, the “lotus eaters” taste, and then become possessed by, a narcotic plant. In Homer’s Odyssey, a portion of which Soli uses as her novel’s epigraph, the lotus eaters are robbed of any desire to return to their own homeland.

When Linh, Darrow’s soldier-turned-photography assistant falls in love with Helen, the book takes another turn. Linh is a self-contained man, a mysterious figure, who has lost everything he ever loved to the war. As such, he’s able to see the war with a clarity that neither Helen nor Darrow can possess. Linh is not a person who romanticizes the cruelty of war, and though the war has taken from him everything he loves, he still feels deeply connected to his native country.

I found Linh to be the most complex and intriguing character in The Lotus Eaters. Soli expertly reveals his story by peeling back layer after layer, as though peeling an onion. Just when we think we really know Linh, we find he has yet another secret to share. He is thoroughly believable; his dilemmas feel real and authentic.

Linh is, of course, symbolic of all the Vietnamese people, people who suddenly found themselves strangers in their own homeland. In his role as a photographer’s assistant, Linh is an outsider in the war; he takes as little part in the Vietnamese side of the conflict as he does in the American side. He does, after all, have mixed allegiances to both the SVA and the NVA and to Darrow and to Helen. He embodies the conflict raging on around them. I thought Linh was a wonderful creation and I greatly admire Soli for the work she put into this character.

At times, Soli’s prose is spare and pared down. At other times, it’s almost poetic. Her description of Linh’s physical and emotional loneliness is especially poignant:

One came to love another through repeated touch, he believed, the way a mother bonded with her newborn, the way his family had slept in the communal room, brushing against one another, the patterning through nerve endings, a laying of pulse against pulse, creating a rhythm of blood, and so now he touched others, strangers, only fleetingly, without hope.

However, throughout the book, Soli is at her best when describing scenes of war:

The air boiled hot and opaque, the sky a hard, saline blue. For miles the black mangrove swamp spread like a stagnant ocean, clotted, arthritic. Farther on they passed the swollen tributaries of the Mekong. Papaya, grapefruit, water palm, mangosteen, orange—fruit of every variety grew in abundance, dropping with heavy thuds on the ground to burst in hot flower in the sun.


Helen was fairly well drawn as the main character, however I have some problems with inconsistencies in the book. Christine Wicker, in the “Dallas Morning News” put it best, and I’m paraphrasing her words. At one point, Helen is so terrified of the war she finds herself involved in that she wets her pants while on patrol; in the next paragraph, she’s totally bored, and death, for her, seems to be some intellectual concept rather than something immediate and visceral. In another section, she describes a French woman with crimson lips, powdered skin, and penciled brows. On the very next page, this same French woman is described as very sparing with make up and taking painstaking work to look so natural. What?

Helen is presented to the reader as an intelligent and savvy woman, but even after months in Vietnam taking photos, she appears for her first battle assignment and has to ask another photographer to load her camera, as she doesn’t know how.

As Wicker concludes, Soli was probably just trying to show us Helen’s innocence and naiveté, however, if she was, the whole technique backfired on her. Helen, in these scenes, just comes across as an idiot.

Like Wicker, at that point, I found myself focusing more on Soli’s clumsiness than on the story or the characters. Miss Wicker went on to love the book; I went on to find it “just so-so.”

There’s no denying that Soli can write when she puts her mind to it. Helen begins to deal with grief and loss in the way many war victims deal with it – by pushing deeper and deeper into the war itself. Linh arranges for Helen to photograph the Ho Chi Minh trail, and Soli’s writing in these passages, regarding Helen’s grief, is exquisite:

After three days, Helen no longer thought of the crooked apartment or Saigon. Even Darrow changed from a pain outside, inflicted, to something inside, a tumor, with only its promise of future suffering. The vastness of the jungle struck her again in all its extraordinary voluptuousness, its wanton excess. It enchanted. Time rolled in long green distances, and she took comfort in the fact that the land would outlast them, would outlast the war—would outlast time itself.

All in all, I felt The Lotus Eaters could have been a very deep and wonderful book, one that embraced universal themes, but its deficiencies in craft caused it to miss the mark. It’s an uneven book, with prose that is spare and jarring at times and lofty and poetic at others. It asks much of the reader regarding the suspension of disbelief, and the ending feels rushed and is far too neat and tidy and too designed to please rather than being true to the vision set forth in the book’s first chapter.

I think Soli can become a major talent, but I don’t think this book quite lives up to the promises it makes in its very wonderful, and wonderfully written, first chapter.


Recommended: If you’re interested in the Vietnam War or the effects of war in general. While most books have concentrated on war from the perspective of those who are fighting, this book concentrates on the perspective of the photojournalist, a unique point of view. If you’re a picky reader like I am, however, the book’s deficiencies in craft might bother you as they did me.