Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, April 25, 2011

Book Review - Bloodroot by Amy Greene

Despite the fact that the cover of Amy Greene’s debut novel, Bloodroot, is a dreamy, pastoral image, the story this book tells is dark, brooding, and at times, forbidding. Set in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, Greene shows us a side of Appalachia that many readers would rather forget – a side beset by poverty so pervasive that it begets violence, a violence that spills over from one generation into the next.

Spanning three generations, Bloodroot centers around the high spirited, blue-eyed, black haired Myra Lamb, and Myra is one of the book’s six narrators. The other five are: Myra’s loving grandmother, Byrdie; Myra’s abusive husband, John Odom; Myra’s children, the quiet Laura and the bitter Johnny; and Doug Cotter, a neighbor of Myra’s who falls in love with her. In telling a story that moves from grandmother to mother to granddaughter to that granddaughter’s children, Greene is giving us a portrait of the bonds that children form with their mothers, and how both the good and bad in one generation is handed down to the next.

And even though the book is, for the most part, dark, Bloodroot is filled with rapturous descriptions of the hills and hollows and the glorious, blossoming springs of Appalachia as well as the folk wisdom and “mountain magic” that permeates this isolated area of the world. Greene so obviously loves Appalachia, and that love shows in her book, so much so, that the setting almost functions as a character, itself. I can’t imagine Bloodroot taking place anywhere but where it does. But, as charming and gorgeous as some of Greene’s descriptive passages are, she doesn’t let her readers forget that Bloodroot’s primary concern is a dark one.

We first meet Myra Lamb through the eyes of her grandmother, Byrdie, and through the recollections of Myra’s neighbor, Doug Cotter. It was Byrdie who raised Myra – on Bloodroot Mountain, of course – and it was Doug Cotter who fell in love with her as he and Myra roamed the mountain and the surrounding countryside. “The whole mountain belonged to us,” Doug tells the reader, “and we knew its terrain like our own bodies, every scar and cleft and fold.” Byrdie comes from a long line of women who have special powers – healers, though some called them witches. But Byrdie, even with her special powers, is powerless against Myra’s wild, untamed streak, and compares her to Wild Rose, a wild and untamed, but beautiful, horse. Shy and quiet Doug, too, is powerless against Myra’s wishes once she falls under the spell of the dark and unpredictable John Odom.

Suffice to say that Myra follows her heart, and all does not go well for her. When she gives birth to twins, the above-mentioned Johnny and Laura, she does her best to be a loving mother, but she’s emotionally fragile, and eventually the children end up in the care of others. Laura really tries to keep a low profile and better her lot in life, but Johnny, who is bitter and resentful, acts out. At one point, Johnny hikes up Bloodroot Mountain with a friend who has promised to show him a witch’s house. They come upon a little, dilapidated house, hidden among the trees. Johnny says it looks “like a toy I could hold in both hands, a dirty white box with black window holes and the roof a flake of blood.” Turns out, it’s his childhood home, and the “witch” in question is Myra, his mother. Even though Johnny acts out, it’s easy enough to sympathize with his lot in life, to care about him, even if we don’t agree with his actions.

Although Bloodroot’s primary character is Myra Lamb, we don’t hear from Myra directly until the book’s final section. In some ways, I liked this, and though it added an air of mystery to Myra’s character and to the book. In other ways, I didn’t like it at all. Maybe Greene waited a bit too long to let her readers “hear” from Myra directly. I haven’t decided. I do know Greene layered on the Gothic overtones in Myra’s section, perhaps a bit too heavily, and I like the Southern Gothic tradition of writing. I’m a great fan. I love the grotesque characters created by Flannery O’Conner and the mentally fragile ones created by Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.

The problem for me is that I wanted to know more about Myra. She was captivating, but in my opinion, Greene didn’t allow the reader full enough access to her. Her impact seemed a little blunted by only allowing her to speak in the book’s final section.

To be fair, Myra is mentioned, talked about, remembered, in the first sections by her grandmother, Byrdie, and by Doug Cotter, but since Myra, herself, isn’t permitted “onstage,” some readers won’t be able to really get involved with her. It’s easier to want to get involved with Byrdie or Doug, but the reader will know that’s fruitless, too, because the book isn’t “about” either of them.

Like Byrdie, Myra is possessed of many supernatural abilities; she has “the touch.” I think this might have worked if Myra had been present throughout the entire book, but with her only making an appearance in the book’s last section, I felt this was so much ornamentation. I liked Myra a lot more when she was presented as an ordinary woman trying to escape an extraordinary situation. “It’s not right, what we’ve put on her,” one character says in reference to Myra. “She’s made out of flesh and blood, just like anybody else.” And it’s as a flesh and blood woman that the reader relates to Myra, not as a “witch,” not as someone possessed of magical spells like many of the characters in Alice Hoffman’s books. And while I’m at it, I did not think Bloodroot was reminiscent of Alice Hoffman. Bloodroot is darker and more claustrophobic than anything Hoffman ever wrote. Hoffman’s books have a charm and a much lighter touch than Bloodroot has, and that’s not a criticism of either Hoffman or Greene. I’m just saying that they are different.

So, did I like the book or dislike it? I liked it. Very much so. In fact, I loved it, but then, I'm partial to novels set in Appalachia. No, I didn’t think it was perfect, but I thought it was far better than most of the debut novels out there, even those that are highly touted. Greene’s prose is unadorned, but I felt she wrote with great assurance. The reader, I think, feels he or she can trust the author. One thing that kind of annoyed me at times was the dialect. I know some people in Appalachia speak differently than educated people in cities do, but sometimes, when the dialect is too pronounced, I think it detracts from the story rather than adds to it. For example, Greene’s characters would pronounce “wash” like “worsh.” I grew up in Appalachia myself, and even after I moved away to go to school, I would still spend summers there. I heard some of my own relatives pronounce “wash” like “worsh,” so I knew immediately what Greene was talking about, but other readers, those who’ve spent their entire lives in cities, for example, might have to stop and puzzle over some of the words, and that’s never a good thing. Still, I thought the dialogue had a poetic, and very authentic, Tennessee cadence.

Some readers have told me that they didn’t like the fact the Greene used six narrative voices. I can understand both this complaint and Greene’s use of multiple narrative voices. Most readers do respond best to books that contain only one or two narrators. Many times, the impact of a story is diluted through the use of multiple narrators. However, there are other stories, and I, personally, feel this is one, that demand multiple narrators in order to fully express the range of emotional and thematic material presented. I thought Greene did a good job moving back and forth among her narrators, however, I do have to agree with those readers who felt all six of the narrators sounded pretty much alike and that it was difficult to tell one from the other. In addition, this entire story is "told" rather then being dramatized in scenes. After a while, I started to feel I was being "preached to" and it got a little annoying.

What I didn’t like, and this may be only personal preference, is the fact that in this book, it was only the women who were strong and independent. The men, for the most part, seemed to be jerks. I keep hoping one of them would be different, from the very beginning, but it was not to be. I don’t oppose strong, independent women, but I thought a kind, gentle man here and there would have balanced the book a bit more. Even one kind and gentle man would have sufficed.

I’m not a fan of bleak lives, in real life, but I am a fan of bleak literature, and let’s be truthful, we all have to bear a bit of bleakness now and then. It’s just part of living. Bloodroot more than satisfied my love for bleak literature. The book is chock full of pain and suffering, but to Greene’s credit it’s never pain and suffering for the sake of pain and suffering. The consequences in this book all flow from character, as they should, and those characters are complex, rich, fully realized persons.

I’m also a fan of claustrophobic literature, and I loved the way Greene set her story on Bloodroot Mountain, and in doing so, kept the world at bay. The enormous beauty of the setting was a joy to read, but it also served to highlight the poverty and the violence that was taking place.

Bloodroot is a rather slow paced novel, but I think that fits well with its Southern setting. Not a tremendous lot happens; this is primarily a character driven novel, but I also enjoyed that. Even though I wanted to know more about Myra, I was still able to get totally drawn into the lives of the characters. This is a book that made me feel, rather than making me think, and for me, that’s the best kind of book.

All in all, Bloodroot is a book that will stay with me for a long time to come, and I look forward to Amy Greene’s next novel. She has an amazing talent, and I just hope she continues to set her books in the beautiful Tennessee landscape.


Recommended: Definitely, for those readers who love character driven novels, and love a book with overtones of the Southern Gothic genre.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Writing Tips - Learn From the Pros! Writing Tips from Writers - Part Three

AL Kennedy

1. Have humility. Older/more experienced/more convincing writers may offer rules and varieties of advice. Consider what they say. However, don't automatically give them charge of your brain, or anything else – they might be bitter, twisted, burned-out, manipulative, or just not very like you.

2. Have more humility. Remember you don't know the limits of your own abilities. Successful or not, if you keep pushing beyond yourself, you will enrich your own life – and maybe even please a few strangers.

3. Defend others. You can, of course, steal stories and attributes from family and friends, fill in filecards after lovemaking and so forth. It might be better to celebrate those you love – and love itself – by writing in such a way that everyone keeps their privacy and dignity intact.

4. Defend your work. Organizations, institutions and individuals will often think they know best about your work – especially if they are paying you. When you genuinely believe their decisions would damage your work – walk away. Run away. The money doesn't matter that much.

5. Defend yourself. Find out what keeps you happy, motivated and creative.

6. Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

7. Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won't need to take notes.

8. Be without fear. This is impossible, but let the small fears drive your rewriting and set aside the large ones until they behave – then use them, maybe even write them. Too much fear and all you'll get is silence.

9. Remember you love writing. It wouldn't be worth it if you didn't. If the love fades, do what you need to and get it back.

10. Remember writing doesn't love you. It doesn't care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.

Hilary Mantel

1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.

2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don't really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, "how to" books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.

3. Write a book you'd like to read. If you wouldn't read it, why would anybody else? Don't write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book's ready.

4. If you have a good story idea, don't assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.

5. Be aware that anything that appears before "Chapter One" may be skipped. Don't put your vital clue there.

6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?

7. Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that's the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don't notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they're trying too hard to instruct the reader.

8. Description must work for its place. It can't be simply ornamental. It usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.

9. If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can't give your soul to literature if you're thinking about income tax.

Michael Moorcock

1. My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt.

2. Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.

3. Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.

4. If you are writing a plot-driven genre novel make sure all your major themes/plot elements are introduced in the first third, which you can call the introduction.

5. Develop your themes and characters in your second third, the development.

6. Resolve your themes, mysteries and so on in the final third, the resolution.

7. For a good melodrama study the famous "Lester Dent master plot formula" which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.

8. If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.

9. Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).

10. Ignore all proferred rules and create your own, suitable for what you want to say.

Michael Morpurgo

1. The prerequisite for me is to keep my well of ideas full. This means living as full and varied a life as possible, to have my antennae out all the time.

2. Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works wonders: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.

3. A notion for a story is for me a confluence of real events, historical perhaps, or from my own memory to create an exciting fusion.

4. It is the gestation time which counts.

5. Once the skeleton of the story is ready I begin talking about it, mostly to Clare, my wife, sounding her out.

6. By the time I sit down and face the blank page I am raring to go. I tell it as if I'm talking to my best friend or one of my grandchildren.

7. Once a chapter is scribbled down rough – I write very small so I don't have to turn the page and face the next empty one – Clare puts it on the word processor, prints it out, sometimes with her own comments added.

8. When I'm deep inside a story, living it as I write, I honestly don't know what will happen. I try not to dictate it, not to play God.

9. Once the book is finished in its first draft, I read it out loud to myself. How it sounds is hugely important.

10. With all editing, no matter how sensitive – and I've been very lucky here – I react sulkily at first, but then I settle down and get on with it, and a year later I have my book in my hand.

Andrew Motion

1. Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly.

2. Think with your senses as well as your brain.

3. Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary.

4. Lock different characters/elements in a room and tell them to get on.

5. Remember there is no such thing as nonsense.

6. Bear in mind Wilde's dictum that "only mediocrities develop" – and challenge it.

7. Let your work stand before deciding whether or not to serve.

8. Think big and stay particular.

9. Write for tomorrow, not for today.

10. Work hard.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Today In Literary History - Doris Lessing Publishes The Golden Notebook

On April 16, 1962, Doris Lessing published The Golden Notebook, still the most highly praised and bestselling of all her books.

The Golden Notebook tells the story of writer, Anna Wulf and the four notebooks in which she keeps a detailed record of her life, and her attempt to tie them all together in a fifth, gold-colored notebook. The structure of the novel is postmodern, complex, and non-linear. The book intersperses segments of the lives of Anna and her friend, Molly, their children, ex-husbands, and lovers, entitled Free Women, with excerpts from Anna’s four notebooks – one colored black (Anna’s experience in Central Africa before and during WWII); one colored red (Anna’s experience as a member of the Communist Party); one colored yellow (an ongoing novel based on the painful ending of Anna’s love affair); and one colored blue (Anna’s personal journal).

Each of the four notebooks is returned to four times, thus creating a non-chronological, overlapping narrative that interacts with every other narrative. This structure can make the book seem rather playful, but Lessing has insisted that her readers pay attention to the novel’s serious themes, among them women’s rights and struggles, the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear conflagration.

In Volume Two of her autobiography, Walking in the Shade, Lessing details her regret that The Golden Notebook became a “Bible of the Women’s Movement” and says, “A book that had been planned so coolly was read, I thought, hysterically.”

Strangely – or maybe not so strangely - Lessing has always considered the book a failure:

That novel had a framework made by thinking. The thought was to divide off and compartmentalise living was dangerous and led to nothing but trouble. Old, young; black, white; men, women; capitalism, socialism: these great dichotomies undo us, force us into unreal categorisation, make us look for what separates us rather than what we have in common.... That is why I have always seen The Golden Notebook as a failure: a failure in my terms, of what I had meant. For has this book changed by an iota our tendency to think like computers set to sort everything – people, ideas, history – into boxes? No, it has not.

Born in Iran in 1919, when Iran was still Persia, Lessing’s younger years were spent in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where her father failed to make his fortune at farming maize. At fifteen, Lessing left her parents home in Britain and became a nursemaid. At twenty-one, she was a wife and the mother of two children, but she divorced in 1943. Following her divorce, she joined the Left Book Club, a Communist book club in which she met her second husband. That marriage, too, ended in divorce, but not before Lessing had a third child.

Because Lessing was so vehemently opposed to nuclear arms and South African apartheid, she was banned from that country, in which her two oldest children lived with their father, and also from Rhodesia, for many years. Eventually, she settled in London with her youngest child, a son.

The winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, and just about every other literary prize, Lessing was offered the title Dame of the British Empire, but she turned it down, saying that there was no British Empire, and that being a “Dame” was a tradition she did not care to join.

Lessing heartily dislikes being called a “feminist” author. “So I became a feminist icon,” she says. “But what had I said? That any kind of singlemindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness.”

Lessing is a versatile writer. Her work ranges from novels to plays to poetry to nonfiction to opera libretti to short story collections to comics. Now, ninety-one, “The Times” in 2008, ranked Doris Lessing fifth on a list of “The Fifty Greatest British Writers Since 1945.”

My own favorite “Doris Lessing” works are The Grass Is Singing, The Golden Notebook, and the short story collection, The Grandmothers. What’s yours?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Review - Classics - The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter

Gene (Geneva) Stratton-Porter and this book, The Keeper of the Bees, are both sadly overlooked. The Keeper of the Bees is a classic. It’s a beautiful story, wonderfully written, and filled with characters so real, you think you might meet one of them yourself any day now.

Gene Stratton-Porter was brought up in the forests of Indiana – when Indiana had forests – before the trees were cut down for timber – and she was a lover of nature. The natural world plays such importance that is a character in all of her books, and in all of them you can find her belief that nature can heal us and teach us valuable lessons that we miss if we spend all our time in the city. This is a belief I feel very in tune with. My relatives, on both sides of my family, lived in the countryside, and I grew up spending summers in the country. I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything.

Stratton-Porter’s books are filled with everything in just the right amounts. They possess a quiet humor, but in no way are these books comedic; they contain tragedy, but the prevailing mood always remains one of optimism; they are filled with love, but in no way are they romances. They are, above all else, human, and they reflect the human condition. Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to identify with them, for everyone I know who’s taken my suggestion and read Gene Stratton-Porter, and most especially, The Keeper of the Bees, just falls in love with the book and wants more from this very special author.

The Keeper of the Bees is Stratton-Porter’s last novel and is set in 1920s California, the state she adopted as her home. The story revolves around Jamie McFarlane, a man of Scottish descent, who has been sent to a California military hospital after being severely wounded in World War I. The hospital wants to send Jamie away, to a rehabilitation camp, but Jamie knows tuberculosis, not health, is running rampant at the camp, and he rebels. Though he’s weak and without family, he leaves the hospital for parts unknown. At least he can die on a tranquil beach. Or so he thinks.

Some people think we draw to us what we, ourselves are. A kind of “like begets like” sort of thing. And so it is with Jamie. As luck – or destiny – would have it, he ends up at the door of the Bee Master, a man who is also trying to recover his health in the face of serious heart problems. The Bee Master needs to spend some time in the hospital, and even though Jamie’s a stranger, the Bee Master asks him to take care of his beloved hives for him while he’s gone. At least Jamie has youth on his side, something the Bee Master does not. And so Jamie begins to learn about beekeeping, and also how to care for the beautiful flowers that surround the Bee Master’s lovely seaside home. The reader, by the way, will learn more about beekeeping in this lovely book than in most manuals on the subject, but don’t let that put you off. Stratton-Porter always makes it the most fascinating subject.

As Stratton-Porter describes Jamie’s initial lessons in beekeeping and gardening, readers can hear the surf as it crashes onto the sandy beach; they can smell the fresh salt air; they can see the beautiful blue flowers that grow in the Bee Master’s garden; they feel they can reach out and pluck a ripe tomato fresh from the vine; they can hear the hives humming and taste the sweet honey as soon as it’s made. Stratton-Porter’s writing is that immediate and that filled with sensory detail, something that’s very rare in books published today.

Jamie doesn’t jump right into all this beauty and tranquility and heal, both physically and spiritually. At least not immediately. In fact, one stormy night finds Jamie on the beach, so distraught that he considers ending his life. Instead, he meets a mysterious woman whose life is in worse shape than his, and who will be instrumental in his own restoration to health and wholeness. (It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Jamie does return to health and wholeness; you only have to read two or three pages of this wonderful book to see how very life affirming it is.)

There’s nothing about The Keeper of the Bees that isn’t just plain, old-fashioned wonderful. This is storytelling at its finest. Storytelling. This book isn’t concerned with exploring some new form of experimental literature. It isn’t concerned with taking us off to worlds that only exist in the author’s imagination. It isn’t concerned with being “coy” or “cute.” Yes, those things have their place, and with the exception of “coy” and “cute,” I, too, like most other readers, enjoy many different kinds of literature. If I had to choose one kind, however, it would be the realistic portrayals found in The Keeper of the Bees. Stratton-Porter seeks to illuminate the bonds that connect us all, that make us human, and she succeeds wonderfully. The people you meet in The Keeper of the Bees are the kind of people you’d probably like to get to know in real life. People you’d enjoy having as neighbors and friends. Jamie, himself, is a wonderful, three-dimensional character. And then there’s the Little Scout.

Little Scout is a character that might be frowned on today, as we’re unsure, for most of the book, whether Little Scout is a boy or a girl. All we know is that he/she is nothing short of delightful. Little Scout bubbles over with life. He/she runs a little faster, works a little harder, and loves a little better. And, in the last part of the book, we do find out whether Little Scout is a boy or a girl, but I won’t reveal the answer to that question here. If you want to know, and if you want to know what happens to Little Scout, you have to read the book.

If I have one criticism of this book, it might be that Stratton-Porter could get a little “preachy” about things she felt were morally reprehensible, but she never overdoes it, and her strong morals never interfere with the story.

The Keeper of the Bees manages to be a quintessentially American story, though really, the events this story depicts could have happened just about anywhere. I guess the difference lies in the fact that they would have been told in a different way if they would have happened in a different country. Or maybe not. Maybe The Keeper of the Bees is a story that could have happened to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Maybe it’s that universal.

This is a book to read and reread, to cherish, and to pass along to those we love, so they can read it, too.


Recommended: Absolutely. If you’re just looking for a heartwarming, wise, and wonderful story, this book can’t be beat. It’s life-affirming on every page.