Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Op-Ed - Ten Classics That Shouldn't Be

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville – Melville wasn’t a tidy writer. Perceptive readers might have noticed that Melville first intended a character named “Bulkington” to be the book’s protagonist. After writing the character of Ahab, however, Melville found him to be so much more interesting. Rather than change what he’d already written, as that was too much work, Melville simply disposed of poor Bulkington by allowing him to be swept overboard and lost at sea. Melville also tended to overwrite, not a little, but a lot. Entire chapters are dedicated to such topics as the color white, a whale’s tail, and endless descriptions of the sea. While interesting at first, this overwriting soon leads to mind-numbing boredom on the part of most readers. More than once, I was awakened from a deep sleep by the book slipping out of my hands to the floor with a thud.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger – Sure, this is “the” novel of teenage Angst, but is any character in literature more whiney than Holden Caulfield? He spends the entire book just walking around, wasting his life, with no burning needs and no overriding desires. I realize that Salinger was trying to capture the feeling of hopelessness we all experience sometime between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, but that’s still no excuse for writing a story that is no story. Other Angst-ridden characters, characters who owe their very existence to Holden, try to find some purpose in their shallow, misdirected lives, no matter how small. Think of Tom Henderson, Dennis Cooverman, and DeeDee Truitt. Holden just walks around in a daze, unable to even get laid by a prostitute, for heaven’s sake. And at one point, I thought if he mentioned calling Jane Gallagher one more time, I would have fired a gun into the air while screaming, “Just pick up a pay phone and call her, you *&^%$! Do something! Anything!” And the ending really sucks. Everything is still pretty much like it was in the beginning of the book. Too much time has passed between the carousel scene and the epilogue. What the heck was going on? Why is Holden in California? He told Phoebe he wouldn’t leave. Is this the mental institution alluded to in the beginning of the book? He's still there? Who figured out he’s insane? I just wanted to give this kid a good shake and scream, “We all have to grow up!”

Lord of the Flies by William Golding – This book could have been horrifying, but it asks the reader to accept too much. For starters, I can never get over what a bunch of pre-pubescent English schoolboys are doing on a plane, above what must be Polynesia, during World War II. If a person can get past that, he or she must realize that there is no way anyone at all, not even James Bond, Chuck Norris, or MacGuyver, could start a fire with a pair of glasses, and no way a bunch of little kids could hunt down a raging wild boar with some pointed sticks. Jeez.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser – The prose in this book is so bad it honestly reduced me to tears when I first encountered the novel in high school. And if writing poorly isn’t bad enough, Dreiser tends to be redundant. I kept flipping through to the end, checking to see how many pages I had left and wondering if I could endure them. For those who don’t know (count yourselves lucky), the book is 828-pages (too) long. Now, even in high school I wasn’t stupid enough to read the whole thing, but I did persevere to page 350 before I threw in the towel and made do with a better-written synopsis, so I’ve had experience enough. Dreiser manages to milk his bleak and hopeless narrative for all it’s worth and ends the book in a typically (for him) anti-climactic manner. Bottom line: There really is no reason on earth why any sane person should waste his time, valuable or not, on this blight on the face of literature. Avoid this book like the plague.

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse – First I need to admit that I despise Hermann Hesse’s entire oeuvre, with the possible exceptions of The Glass Bead Game and Narcissus and Goldmann, and even those aren’t dear to my heart. I despise the books, in part, because proponents of the old “hippie” movement of the 1960s gravitate toward them, and I can’t stand anything to do with “hippies,” “flower children” or anything “counterculture.” It’s not that I’m satisfied with American life the way it is. I’m not. It’s that I’ve always found people who ascribe to a “counterculture” to be so idealistically phony and fake. Non-conformists are so very conformist; they just conform to a different set of “rules” than mainstream America. The problem with this book is the fact that its protagonist, Harry Haller, doesn’t want to be a member of any “counterculture” at all, despite his dissatisfaction with his life. He’s really quite bourgeois. He’s miserable peering into all those homes. Haller knows he’s the one who has it wrong, not the people tucked up safely inside. But I can well understand why Hesse’s work is so popular with the ‘60s counterculture movement. I’m sure it all goes down a lot smoother and easier with a bong.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne – I hate this book, and I hate Hester Prynne even though the woman was treated unfairly. I’ve always thought this book was the reason behind the high drop out rate in American high schools. I also believe it’s the reason why kids on a rampage target the English departments of universities. You can’t just “forget” The Scarlet Letter. Once you’ve read this book, you’re a different, though not a better, person. It was this book that made me want to gouge my eyes out when I ran into bad prose. If you like the following, this might be the book for you: In fact, this scaffold constituted a portion of a penal machine, which now, for two or three generations past, has been merely historical and traditionary among us, but was held, in the old time, to be as effectual an agent in the promotion of good citizenship, as ever was the guillotine among the terrorists of France. ZZZZZzzzzz.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – I mean seriously, they try to kill themselves by sledding into a tree, and then are surprised when it doesn’t work. It’s almost laughable.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway wrote fabulous stories, and The Old Man and the Sea is a fabulous book, but readers need to stop right there if they want to appreciate Hemingway. They shouldn’t, by any means, read A Farewell to Arms. Cardboard cutouts for characters, a trite and almost non-existent plot, sentimentality galore. Hemingway had a fascination with pregnant women, and he loved to kill them during childbirth. Nowhere is this more evident than in this book. Beware.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – The truth of the matter is this: Atlas Shrugged is one of the worst books ever written. It’s filled with characters more flat than the pages on which they live, who nevertheless lounge around in Art Deco mansions and spout philosophical gibberish. Atlas Shrugged, with The Fountainhead, are the only books I’ve read in which the dramatic climax consists of a 100-page monologue on some sort of philosophical/political subject. And in the midst of all this philosophy, Rand tosses in a few lurid, rape-like sex scenes worthy of Jacqueline Susann or some other romance writer whose name I’ve blessedly forgotten. She’s not even mildly entertaining in the way that Dan Brown and Dennis Lahane can be mildly entertaining. Blech! Rand is not for me.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – A lot of people love this book, but for me, it’s a contrived, pretentious piece of work. I mean every line, every word. Steinbeck never tires of pounding it into our heads that “this” is “art.” The terrible dialogue, the shallow message that is artificially “deep.” Unlike the other books, however, I don’t recommend intelligent readers stay away. I think everyone should read this book so they more fully understand how easily people not only swallow shallow tripe, but go on to proclaim its (non-existent) virtues as well.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

In the News - The 2011 Man Booker Prize Longlist

The thirteen books forming the 2011 Booker longlist were announced today. Have you read any? Do you have a favorite?

Julian Barnes - The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape - Random House)

Sebastian Barry - On Canaan's Side (Faber)

Carol Birch - Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate Books)

Patrick deWitt - The Sisters Brothers (Granta)

Esi Edugyan - Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail - Profile)

Yvvette Edwards - A Cupboard Full of Coats (Oneworld)

Alan Hollinghurst - The Stranger's Child (Picador - Pan Macmillan)

Stephen Kelman - Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)

Patrick McGuinness - The Last Hundred Days (Seren Books)

A.D. Miller - Snowdrops (Atlantic)

Alison Pick - Far to Go (Headline Review)

Jane Rogers - The Testament of Jessie Lamb (Sandstone Press)

D.J. Taylor - Derby Day (Chatto & Windus - Random House)

I haven't read any of these books, but I certainly will. Do you have a favorite?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Book Review - The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

Promotions for this book often ran along the lines, “If you liked Possession, you’ll love The Children’s Book.” This isn’t/wasn’t necessarily true. A.S. Byatt’s Booker winning Possession and her Booker shortlisted The Children’s Book are very different, and liking, even loving the former doesn’t guarantee a reader will like the latter at all. Possession was a romance, with a double storyline and characters based on Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti. The second half of the book picks up speed until it’s a race against time almost on par with Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. The Children’s Book is a complex portrait of an era, brimming with characters, stories, and detail, and the pace of the novel, even at its most rapid, can be said to be “meandering.” I know people who loved both books (I am one), and I know people who loved Possession and didn’t care for The Children’s Book at all, as well as those who didn’t like either book. The only real similarity between the two books is the extremely high quality of Byatt’s writing.

The Children’s Book stretches from 1895 to 1919, encompassing England’s late Victorian and Edwardian eras, and is set primarily in the beautiful downs and marshes of County Kent, in southern England, as well as the southeastern coast at Dungeness, with excursions to Paris, Munich, the Italian Alps, and the trenches of the Somme. At the center – more or less – of this richly textured and meticulously researched novel, are three families – the Wellwoods, the Cains, and the Fludds, supported by pre-Raphaelites, Russian anarchists, socialists, antivivisectionists, Theosophists, Symbolists, members of the Fabian Society, the Arts and Crafts Movement, proponents of German Expressionism, suffragettes, as well as cameos from historical persons including Rupert Brooke, Emma Goldman, J.M. Barrie, George Bernard Shaw, and a very broken-down Oscar Wilde.

Humphrey and Olive Wellwood, with Olive’s sister, Violet, who functions as a nanny/head housekeeper, live with their brood of children (the book will follow Tom and Dorothy, the eldest most closely) in a charming country house with the improbable name of “Todefright.” Olive is a “successful authoress of magical tales” for children, while Humphrey is a banker by default, rather than by inclination. The book opens in the South Kensington Museum (later the Victoria and Albert) as Olive is seeking inspiration from the museum’s “Special Keeper of Precious Metals,” Major Prosper Cain. Off on an adventure of their own are Olive’s eldest son, Tom, and Cain’s son, Julian (daughter Florence isn’t in the museum, but she plays a large part in the book), who are soon to discover Philip Warren, an artistic lower-class runaway from the Potteries, who’s been surreptitiously living in the museum’s labyrinth of storerooms. It’s Philip who connects the Wellwoods to the Cains and the Fludds, when he’s rescued by Olive and apprenticed to Benedict Fludd (based on the British sculptor, Eric Gill), a genius potter given to “werewolf-changes” and “religious fits.” Fludd lives with his wife, the dreamy Serephita, his son, Geraint, and his pretty daughters, Imogen and Pomona, who are “pallid silk moths” and live “as though they have sleeping sickness, or are under a spell.” The Fludds’ ghastly home, Purchase House, stands in stark contrast to the charm and whimsy that is Todefright. But as the reader soon learns, all is not as it would seem at first glance.

In the Wellwood and Fludd families, in particular, secrets abound. We soon learn that Olive’s and Violet’s background in a dingy mining community in south Yorkshire, with its dire poverty and traumatic loss, is more akin to Philip Warren’s than it is to any member of the Wellwood family, and that Olive, despite her seven children, is not the “modern Mother Goose” she portrays herself to be, nor is she a fairy godmother come to life. Everyone is this book suffers from a hidden past, secret relationships, and repressed pain. The Children’s Book is definitely not the idyllic tale of life in the countryside that some readers might think it to be. This book is chock full of marital infidelities, dysfunctional relationships, unwanted pregnancies, illegitimate children, mental illness and more. This is, in part, a book about how much a person is willing to sacrifice for his or her art, and how much he or she is willing to sacrifice those closest to him or her as well. For me, The Children’s Book is Byatt’s darkest work by far, as the creative process, at least for most of the characters in this novel, brings out the very worst in the artist’s nature rather than the best. In this book, it’s the need to create that drives many of the characters – principally, Olive Wellwood and Benedict Fludd – and that need overrides anything else in the characters’ lives. I enjoyed the darkness in this book, but I do think many readers will be put off by it, or reject its use in such large measure.

At the center of this book are Olive Wellwood’s dark and rather sinister fairy tales – the infant prince whose shadow is stolen while he’s still in his crib; the girl who imprisons a group of miniature human beings in her dolls’ house only to be imprisoned herself by another, larger child – written more in the German tradition than in the English. Byatt has threaded extracts of Olive’s work throughout the book, thus inviting, I think, those unfair comparisons with Possession, and introducing the reader to her own opinion of the writers of children’s literature of the period. One can find, in the pages of this book, J.M. Barrie, Edith Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, and others. And there’s Olive, of course, who seems to be a composite of several historical writers of the time.

For each of “her” children, Olive has created a special book, a book that not only reveals her inner feelings about that child, but her biological relationship as well. “The stories in the books were, in their nature, endless. They were like segmented worms, with hooks and eyes to fit on to the next moving and coiling section. Every closure of plot had to contain a new beginning.” The first book, and by far, the longest, belongs to Tom, Olive’s eldest, Peter Pan-like son, the boy who, ironically, despises the figure of Peter Pan and “make believe.” It’s Tom Olive loves the most, and oddly, it’s Tom Olive hurts the most when she fails to separate her son from his fictional alter ego, and when she makes the details of “his” story available to the public at large by way of a play – “Tom Underground” – that’s celebrated for its echoes of Wagner and Kleist. It was, after all, understood that each child’s story would remain private, for “everyone understood that the magic persisted because it was hidden, because it was a shared secret.” A secret shared only by Olive and the child for whom the book had been written.

With Olive’s betrayal of Tom, the children of the novel grow to adulthood knowing full well that the darkest side of life lies just around each corner, waiting to strike. The girls learn that their husbands will betray them, the boys that wives will sometimes do the same. And both girls and boys learn that one’s birth mother or father is often not the same thing as one’s “true” parent, and that even “true” parents are capable of the most hurtful of betrayals.

Many readers find the sheer number of characters inhabiting this book to be daunting. And, at times, they can be. For example, Byatt introduces more than thirty characters in the first one hundred pages. For me, however, all the characters, as well as their stories, came to life beautifully, and quite memorably. I didn’t have any trouble keeping them straight. I’m not sure if I really liked anyone in this book, but I do know everyone in the book interested me greatly, perhaps all the more because I didn’t really care for them. Many of the characters in the book are trying to figure out just who they are and what their place in life should be. Though Tom takes center stage as the book’s “lost soul,” he’s certainly not the only one, by far. The changes and advancements taking place during the Edwardian age seemed to make it all the more difficult for a child to grow up secure in his own self, knowing who he or she really is. Like them or not, we care about these people, and we genuinely want the best for them.

Byatt’s prose in The Children’s Book, like her prose in every book she writes, is beautiful. The narrative flows in and out of the minds of the various characters so smoothly and effortlessly that the technique is barely visible unless one actually looks for it. And this book is rich in sensory detail, something that really brings the story to life. Byatt is masterful when describing Olive’s early pregnancy nausea as she bites into her morning toast and honey “nourishing herself and the blind life she had not exactly invited to settle in her,” or the sudden desire of young Elsie Warren, who “had reached an age where every surface of her skin was taut with the need to be touched and used.” On one hand, the book might be said to be “writerly,” but on the other, it’s far too human and engaging and genuinely moving to be thought of as “writerly.”

And of course, the book can’t help but veer into politics now and then. For much of the novel, World War I is looming just over the horizon. I think Byatt is at her best when describing the gathering forces of both England and Germany and the crises of identity the war engenders in several of the book’s characters. The coda at the book’s end, centering on the fate of the “bright boys” who fought for England during the Great War is a masterpiece of restraint. It’s beautiful and harrowing at the same time. I don’t know how any reader could fail to be moved. I think many readers are going to feel that The Children’s Book ends on a note of bittersweet hope. Those who managed to survive the war are, in the book’s final pages, reconnecting with loved ones and strengthening old bonds. But one should never forget that this is a very dark book, and the reader should remember that in twenty-one short years, the children of these “bright boys,” most, at the novel's end, still in their nursery, with many not yet born, will be dispatched to the trenches of World War Two.

Some people felt this book needed a shorter, more streamlined story. I’m not one. I think a shorter, more streamlined story would have been a different story, and not the story Byatt wanted to tell, and that would have been such a shame. I loved The Children’s Book exactly as it is. For me, it was an exquisite reading experience, one that stands along side Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace. The Children’s Book is a masterpiece that deserves to be read and appreciated without wanting to change a single thing. This book affected me deeply; I’ll never forget it.


Recommended: Only to those readers who prefer literary fiction and writing of the first order. The book is brimming with detail, and at times, it moves at a leisurely pace. If you’re a reader who needs a plot that moves along at breakneck speed, wonderful as it is, this wouldn’t be the book for you.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Book Review - Psychological Horror - The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

Although certain elements, i.e., veiled specters, haunted mansions, a porcelain doll that comes to life, and the finding of hidden photographs, for example, of John Harwood’s stylish debut novel (he’s since also written The Séance) could be termed cliché, the story this wonderful book tells is such an old fashioned “ripping good yarn” I didn’t care if he did make use the occasional cliché. And, truth be told, Harwood tells his story in such a fresh and innovative way that nothing about it feels cliché at all.

The Ghost Writer is the story of Gerard Freeman, a lonely, awkward, sexually repressed boy growing up in the 1960s in Mawson, Australia, a little town plagued by millipedes and red dust. An only child with a distant father and few, if any, friends, Gerard finds solace in the stories his mother, Phyllis, tells him of her childhood at Staplefield, an English country estate in the grand manner, an idyllic realm of hawthorns, mayflies, and chaffinches. One day, however, the ten-year-old Gerard, who is given to very serious snooping, discovers a photograph of a beautiful, unknown woman and the manuscript of a ghost story written by someone identified only as “V.H.,” presumably, Gerard’s maternal great-grandmother, Viola Hatherley, who lived and died at Staplefield. Although the discovery only whets Gerard’s appetite for more of Staplefield and Viola, his reclusive and neurotic mother chooses, for reasons unknown to Gerard, to stop talking about both rather than filling Gerard in on all she knows, and this, of course, pretty much guarantees that Gerard, himself, will some day journey to England in search of his mother’s ancestral home.

Gerard’s dreary life seems to brighten a little when he, by chance, obtains a England, of course. Alice Jessell is something of a mystery herself. Injured in the accident that killed both of her parents and confined to a wheelchair, Alice is resolute in her determination to neither meet Gerard nor send him a photo until she’s “cured” and walking again, something that, by her own admission, will require a miracle. How she looks is left to Gerard’s rich imagination, and he conjures images of a voluptuous and seductive pre-Raphaelite beauty with milky skin and cascades of coppery hair.

As Gerard grows into adulthood, his friendship with Alice is a growing constant in his life as is his obsession with Viola and Staplefield. When his mother dies, Gerard, who no longer has anything to live for in Australia, sets off for England in search of Staplefield and Alice, with whom he now fancies himself deeply in love.

Threaded throughout the first person narrative of The Ghost Writer are Gerard’s letters to Alice (and vice versa) and, just as importantly, Viola’s ghost stories, which seem to turn up at the most improbable times and quite by chance. The ghost stories make up approximately one-half of the narrative of The Ghost Writer, and each is written in a distinctive style and voice that is quite different from Gerard’s. The stories are both elegant and genuinely “creepy,” and it’s important to read them carefully for they’re integral to a full understanding of the very convoluted plot of this marvelous book. I felt the pace of the book slowed a little during the telling of the ghost stories, but that might be “just me,” and even if it did slow, I thought the slower pace was “just right.” Overall, I think this is a very well paced book, with extremely good writing and flow throughout.

As Gerard’s investigation of his ancestral roots in England leads him deeper and deeper into a labyrinthine and intricately-constructed web of fact, fiction, and fantasy, the lines that define that fact, fiction, and fantasy begin to blur, just as some of the paintings so integral to this story’s plot blur. This is definitely a story of shapeshifters par excellance. All the signs point toward a macabre and horrendous Hatherley family secret, but at this point, can Gerard really trust even his own reason? And who is the real ghost writer? Is it Viola? Alice? Or is it perhaps Gerard, himself? Like all ghost stories of the highest quality, The Ghost Writer raises more questions than it ultimately answers.

Because of the stories and letters that make up much of the narrative of The Ghost Writer, comparisons with A.S. Byatt’s Possession were, I suppose, inevitable. Although the structure of the two books is certainly similar, the mood and atmosphere of each is totally different. Possession is a story of intertwining loves; The Ghost Writer is, well, a ghost story. It owes far more to Henry James (with even a nod to Dickens’ Miss Havisham) than it does to Byatt. In fact, people very familiar with James’ masterpiece of horror, The Turn of the Screw, may feel The Ghost Writer to be slightly derivative. I wasn’t one; as I mentioned above, I felt Harwood’s material was both fresh and original. Though he's evocative of James, I didn’t find him at all derivative.

Like The Turn of the Screw, however, The Ghost Writer is a very interior—even claustrophobic—book, but, though we are privy to Gerard’s thoughts, Harwood keeps him at arm’s length. I never really felt I got to know Gerard and so had little empathy with him. This didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book in any way, however. In fact, I liked the fact that Harwood resisted the possible urge to psychoanalyze his character and simply gave us a first rate story instead.

There's been much criticism leveled on the ending of this book. No, Harwood doesn’t tie everything up into a neat and pretty package, and this book is definitely intricately plotted, but rest assured, Harwood has played more than fair with his readers. Anyone who’s paid close attention to the narrative will understand the ending and realize the meaning of the clues that have liberally laced the story as well as the “stories-within-the-story.” Enigmatically, while many questions will be raised, all the pieces will simultaneously fall into place.

I loved this stylish, elegant, and erudite ghost story and believe it deserves a far wider readership. It’s psychological horror in the grand tradition of James’ The Turn of the Screw, and horror certainly doesn’t get any better than that. This book, along with Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, are the only books I believe can stand alongside The Turn of the Screw and hold their own. And hold their own, they certainly do.


Recommended: To all who love a “ripping good yarn” told in a stylish and elegant manner. This “genuinely creepy” book is bound to keep readers turning pages far into the night. This would make a first rate book for any book discussion group.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Writing Tips - The Ten Biggest Mistakes New Writers Make - The Second Five

6. Many new writers, and some experienced ones as well, fail in knowing when to use “that” and when to use “which.” Often, in editing a manuscript, I’ll change either “that” or “which” to the right word, only to have the author change it back to the wrong word again. It’s really not difficult to know when to use “that” and when to use “which,” and there’s no excuse for using the wrong one. Just no excuse. When you use the wrong word, it’s very jarring to the reader.

Use “that” before a restrictive clause, and use “which” before everything else. For some, this begs the question: What is a restrictive clause? A restrictive clause is part of a sentence you can’t omit because it specifically restricts the other part of the sentence.

The cookies that are on the table were baked by me.

Did I bake all the cookies? Thank goodness, no, I did not, but I did bake the cookies on the table. Without the restrictive clause, however, the sentence would mean that I did bake all the cookies.

A nonrestrictive clause, on the other hand, is something that can be omitted from the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence as a whole. A nonrestrictive clause adds information, but not necessary information, and it’s usually set off by commas:

The Sound and the Fury, which is generally thought of as Faulkner’s masterpiece, is Jane’s favorite.

We could say: The Sound and the Fury is Jane’s favorite. However, we’ve added a nonrestrictive clause to show that Jane’s favorite novel is also generally thought of as Faulkner’s masterpiece. Did you have to have that information? No, you didn’t. It “adds to.”

It’s really as simple as that.

7. Many beginning authors do not understand point-of-view and do not realize when point-of-view is broken. And point-of-view can be difficult as it’s one of the most complex things about fiction writing. Point-of-view will determine everything about your novel: its theme, tone, characterization, etc. Write the same story with a different point-of-view and you’ll find that while you’ve utilized the same basics, you have a totally different book. The purist stays in the same POV for an entire scene, while some big name authors change POV at whim – often to the detriment of their books. I was reading a “Grand Prize” winning story from one of the many writing contests out there today, and I noticed that the author had broken point-of-view in the first paragraph. I doubt that even the contest judges realized what had happened or they wouldn’t have given that particular entry “Grand Prize.” Point-of-view can be very subtle.
Although first person POV is en vogue right now, I think it’s best for beginners to use third person limited point-of-view. First person can work well in some books, but it’s fraught with danger for the inexperienced writer. When choosing a POV character, use the POV of the most important character, usually your hero or heroine.

8. New writers often give characters similar sounding names, causing confusion for the reader. It’s almost always wrong to give characters similar sounding names. Let’s say you have two characters with names beginning with “S” – Susan and Samantha, and Samantha is introduced first. Readers will invariably bond with Samantha and give Susan short shrift, even if Susan is the more important of the two. This holds true even if one character is a woman and one is a man, say Samantha and Samuel. How difficult can it be for the author to change one of the names? I’m working on a book now with a fairly large cast of characters and none of the characters have names so similar as to cause confusion. I can tell you, I didn’t have an unduly difficult time choosing character names. You should also avoid names that sound alike even if they do begin with different letters, e.g., Aiden and Jayden or Addison and Madison. It just confuses the reader and muddies the story. If you have names that are alike, choose one of the names to use, and rename the other characters.

9. Beginning writers often neglect a character’s interior monologue. Yes, it’s possible to write an entire book, and write one very well, without giving the reader any of your characters’ interior thoughts. Eudora Welty did it at least once and did it well. However, it’s not a good stance for a beginner to adopt. Interior monologue can reveal facets of the story not available through dialogue, it can deepen characterization, it can impart vital information to the reader. Just make sure it’s unobtrusive and doesn’t seek to explain emotions or details already shown through dialogue or action.

10. The work of beginning writers often lacks a unifying theme. When a book lacks a unifying theme, many readers will end the book with the question: Now what was that all about? A theme, if you do a good job of exploring it, will add depth and complexity and richness to your novel. Just remember to be subtle. Don’t state the obvious. A theme does not “stick out like a sore thumb,” and yes, I do realize that’s a cliché, but is woven subtly throughout your story. It's sometimes difficult to choose a theme before beginning writing. Often the theme will emerge during the crafting of the story.

Note: Since the posting of the first five “mistakes” many readers and writers have asked me about voice. Voice is not style. Voice is not POV. Voice is unique to each author, and is best developed by writing, writing, writing. If you do enough writing, you’ll eventually develop your distinctive voice. Some writers have a voice that is easily identifiable, such as Edna O’Brien, while other writers have a voice that is transparent. Sometimes, a transparent voice works best. One way to know if you have a truly distinctive voice is by entering various writing contests and then studying the judges’ feedback if available. Usually a distinctive voice will receive very high marks from some judges and very low ones from others. People will either like a distinctive voice or they will not.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Writing Tips - The Ten Biggest Mistakes New Writers Make - The First Five

Most of my work involves ghostwriting books for established authors, however I also do a lot of independent (not through a publishing house) editing for up-and-coming writers. Many of those up-and-comers ask me to list the ten biggest mistakes new writers make. This isn’t hard to do, as I see the same mistakes being made over and over again. And, learning how to correct those mistakes, and learning to greatly improve one’s writing really wouldn’t take a lot of work on the writer’s part. If you’re going to be a writer, strive to be the best. You might not always meet your aspirations, but your work will reflect your desire. Now, those top ten mistakes. The first five are below and I’ll post the next five on Friday. Avoid these, please!

1. By far, the biggest mistake I see new writers making is “telling rather than showing.” I recently read two debut novels, and both of them were “told” in narrative rather than dramatized in scenes. It got to be a real chore just reading the books, and by the time I finished, I was tuckered out. If I hadn’t had to read the novels, I wouldn’t have done so. “Telling,” rather than dramatizing in scenes, can make your reader feel like you’re lecturing him, or worse yet, yelling at him. All telling isn’t bad, though. You do need “telling” when you transition from one scene to another, and in a few other areas in your book, e.g., to slow down the pace, and to show repetitive action, e.g., if you protagonist is enjoying a day at the Indy 500, you don’t want to “show” your reader every lap! That would just be “too much.”

2. New writers use far too many adjectives and adverbs. You knew that one was coming, didn’t you? I don’t think you should dispense with adjectives and adverbs altogether, just most of the time. Most of the time you need to find the precise noun or verb that expresses just what you want to express. If it’s a sunny day, you might not want to say “the blue sky” because the sky is almost always blue on sunny days. You might, however, say “the cloudless sky” because sunny days don’t always feature cloudless skies as well. If we know your protagonist is happy, then you don’t need to tell us “he cried happily.” We already know it. If an adjective or adverb can be dispensed with without harming the integrity of what you want to express, then it’s probably best to get rid of it. Too many adjectives and adverbs will only make your prose seem ponderous, and in the end, you could veer off into “purple prose,” something I’m assuming you want to avoid.

3. New writers are usually vague writers. And no one gets excited about vague writing, especially not agents and editors. Vague writing weakens your book because it forces the reader to guess what you mean rather than “seeing” your words come to life on the printed page. Vague writing is something most writers have to learn to overcome. I know I wrote vague paragraphs when I was learning to write. I don’t any longer. Vagueness is a mistake that is easily corrected. If you’re talking about trees, what kind of trees? Flowers? What kind of flowers? What does that bone china tea service look like that your heroine is so inordinately fond of? What exactly does your protagonist see when he/she looks in the mirror? What do others see? Be specific. Tell us exactly what your characters see, hear, feel (touch), taste and smell. For example, don’t tell us that the scent of flowers was in the air. Tell us the garden was filled with the scent of summer flowers – sweet pea, mignonette, and stock.

4. New writers almost always try to use another dialogue tag in place of “said,” and usually, this backfires. As a dialogue tag, “said” is a perfectly good word. In fact, ninety percent of the time “said” is the only tag you should use. You don’t want dialogue tags calling attention to themselves, and words like “sobbed,” “proclaimed,” “announced,” etc. do call attention to themselves. The dialogue itself should convey how it’s spoken. I don’t go so far as to rule out every dialogue tag except “said,” though. “Shouted,” “asked,” and “whispered” are sometimes useful. Using anything else marks your work as that of an amateur.

I once edited a manuscript so overburdened with fancy dialogue tags, I couldn’t help but write down a few statistics for future reference. On the first five pages alone, this beginning writer had used twenty-two dialogue tags and not one of them was “said.” This writer must have worked very hard to find them all, and she seemed quite pleased that she had. Words like “declared,” “affirmed,” “assented,” “vowed,” “professed,” “alleged,” etc. were cluttering up the story and weighing it down. I edited out most of the tags and replaced others with “said,” and the author did realize how much better and clearer that was.

5. Beginning writers will often write an opening hook that has little or nothing to do with the story they’re going to tell. A lot of new writers I’ve edited write killer opening hooks, just bristling with danger, mystery, and the readers’ “need to know more.” Problems arise when this “bristling” opening hook really has little or nothing to do with the story these writers go on to tell. When that happens, their readers, including any agents and editors, are going to feel much like anyone would feel if he or she were the victim of the old “bait-and-switch.” Here’s an example:

We crept down the stairs, making as little noise as possible. The old house seemed even larger in the dark, and we weren’t sure where we’d go once we got to the ground floor. We heard a loud sigh and couldn’t tell if it came from the oak trees on the front lawn or the ghost we knew inhabited the front parlor. Then the wind picked up, and the large double doors leading to the front porch blew open.

Scary enough, right? Most people want to know how a human being is going to fare when he’s up against a ghost. Then, we read on:

I felt my children wiggle in my arms as I turned another page. “What’s wrong, kids? Don’t you like ghost stories?”

An opening like that is going to cause your readers to slam the cover of your book and toss it aside. That is, if your book ever makes it far enough to have a cover, and it probably won't if you write opening hooks like the above. Don’t attempt to play tricks on your reader. Don’t try to fool them with hyperbole, dreams, jokes, false alarms, or anything else. Sure, work toward those great opening lines and paragraphs, but make sure they relate to the story that follows. If they don’t, you’re disrespecting the very person whose trust you need to earn – your reader’s.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

I love Louise Penny’s “Inspector Gamache” mysteries, and The Brutal Telling is one of the best in the series.

As readers of Penny’s series know, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache heads the homicide department of the Sûreté du Quebec. And, as readers of Penny also know, most of the time, Chief Inspector Gamache is investigating a murder in the seemingly idyllic (I’d love to live there) village of Three Pines, twenty miles south of Montreal.

The corpse that gets things rolling in The Brutal Telling belongs to a hermit who shows up dead on the beautiful pine floor of the bistro owned by longtime partners, Olivier and Gabri, who also run the B&B next door. When Gamache and his colleagues, Jean Guy Beauvoir and Isabelle Lacoste show up, they discover that no one seems to know the dead man’s name or even where he came from. He certainly wasn’t living in Three Pines. And, it isn’t long until a young local man, Agent Paul Morin asks the group if he can tag along and learn what Gamache and company already know: catch a killer they didn’t move forward. They moved back. Into the past. That was where the crime began, where the killer began. Some event, perhaps long forgotten by everyone else, had lodged inside the murderer. And he’d begun to fester.

What kills can’t be seen, the Chief had warned Beauvoir. That’s what makes it so dangerous. It’s not a gun or a knife or a fist. It’s not anything you can see coming. It’s an emotion. Rancid, spoiled. And waiting for a chance to strike.

It isn’t too long before Gamache discovers the hermit’s hut – a log structure hidden deep in the woods and containing more than one surprise. But what was the hermit’s name? How was he killed? And what was the motive? No one in Three Pines seems to know, or if they know, they aren’t talking.

Some of the above questions are eventually answered, while others remain mysteries, at least for most of the book. But this is the part of crime solving that Gamache loves the most:

...the possibility of turning left when he should have gone right. Of dismissing a lead, of giving up on a promising trail. Or not seeing one in his rush to a conclusion.

We know, almost from the beginning of the book, that some of the inhabitants of Three Pines are lying. Olivier, the man who owns the bistro in which the hermit’s body is found, is one. Olivier tells Gamache that he doesn’t know the dead man, but we know he does. Did he kill the man? Maybe. We’re unsure about every character Penny introduces. With each new introduction we have to ask ourselves the same question – could this person have killed the hermit – and invariably, the answer will be yes. Penny has woven red herrings all through her plot.

How involved is Myrna, owner of Three Pines’ bookstore, and the woman who found the hermit’s body on the floor of the bistro? And why does the very eccentric Ruth, the woman who takes her pet duck, Rosa, everywhere keep leaving scraps of poetry for Inspector Beauvoir? Does Ruth know who killed the hermit? Is she leaving Beauvoir clues? Does the killer come from within the ranks of the isolated villagers, or could he or she be one of the strangers in town? What about the people renovating the sinister old “Hadley house?” The Czech immigrants? The strange man in the forest? One of those persons knew the hermit. We know that from the book’s opening pages. But, did that person kill the hermit as well? Penny keeps the reader on his or her toes as we guess and guess again.

The plot is a heady and complex blend of mystery, history, greed, art, and lies, yet even with all its complexity, its never overly complicated. It’s quite cleverly constructed, and though some reviewers compare Penny to Agatha Christie, with all due respect to Ms. Christie, and I do love her books, Penny’s books reach further than Christie’s. Penny’s books explore so much more than just the solving of a murder. The Brutal Telling, especially, explores the broader themes that give rise to a violent and desperate act like murder.

The characterization is rich and complex. For me, the people inhabiting Three Pines really came alive. They all have backstory and histories with one another, and it shows. Not one of them could be eliminated, not one of them functions as “just a plot device.” And I loved their quirkiness. Ruth doesn’t have a pet dog or cat, or even a bird. She has a pet duck. A pet duck that wears discarded baby clothes.

Even Three Pines functions as a character, as Clara well knows:

This solid little village that never changed but helped its inhabitants to change. She'd arrived straight from art college full of avant-garde ideas, wearing shades of gray and seeing the world in black and white. So sure of herself. But here, in the middle of nowhere, she'd discovered color. And nuance. She'd learned from the villagers, who'd been generous enough to lend her their souls to paint. Not as perfect human beings, but as flawed, struggling men and women. Filled with fear and uncertainty, and in at least one case martinis.

I’ve seen a few complaints regarding the subplot involving the artist, Clara and her husband, Peter. A few people thought Clara and Peter were introduced only to bring an art expert into the mix. Not so. And if it’s an art expert Penny needed, she had one built in in the character of Therese Brunel. Clara and Peter’s subplot, and Clara’s desire for the validation of having her works shown in a major gallery, have been a running subplot in all the “Gamache mysteries.” However, one doesn’t have to know this in order to read and enjoy The Brutal Telling. This book can stand on its own. It doesn’t require the reader to be familiar with the previous books in the series. And, if a reader reads The Brutal Telling first, that reader can go back to the previous four “Inspector Gamache” mysteries confident that the fifth gives no spoilers regarding the previous four.

As the plot of The Brutal Telling advances, Inspector Gamache becomes entwined in the international art and antiques trade, and he travels from Three Pines to Montreal to the Queen Charlotte Islands, an archipelago off the north coast of British Columbia. What he finds there, while necessary to this book’s resolution, will only cause Gamache, and the other inhabitants of Three Pines, much sorrow.

I know readers who put the “Inspector Gamache” mysteries into the classification of “cozies.” I would have to agree that that classification comes closest of all, though Gamache is certainly nothing like Christie’s Miss Marple, to me, the "Queen of the Cozies." (I adore Miss Marple, by the way.) Three Pines is quaint and charming no matter how many murders are committed there. There’s something dreamlike and mystical about the village, especially during the fall, and The Brutal Telling is set during the colorful southern Canadian autumn when everything is undergoing a transformation, not into something totally different, but into something more fully itself.

Though there was absolutely nothing wrong with it, I didn’t really like the book’s ending, and for me, it was a gloomy ending. I came away from the book feeling that some day Louise Penny is going to have more to say about this murder and the person who allegedly committed it.

The one criticism I have of this book has to do with Penny’s writing style. Instead of writing longer sentences, Penny tends to break a sentence up into phrases. Not every time, of course, but often enough so that it became very, very noticeable. At first, I didn’t mind, but it happened so often it began to drive me nuts. It was jarring. The writing was calling attention to itself, and it would have been so much better had it not done so. Here’s one example:

But nothing was more surprising than what awaited Chief Inspector Gamache. In the farthest corner of the room.


While everyone else was gazing ahead, he was slumped down and staring back. To where they’d been.

And those aren’t even the worst offenders. Some of the many other instances caused the writing to be extremely choppy. Maybe those of us who are bothered by this are in the minority. I don’t know, but given the glowing reviews of this book, and all Penny’s other books, I’d say we are. You might feel this is a quibble, or you might be bothered even more than I was. I just wanted to make readers aware of this quirk in Penny’s writing style. Otherwise, Penny’s writing style is fine, just perfect for a murder mystery. While reading, I would be totally engrossed in the mystery until one of these awkward (to me) phrases would pull me out of the book.

In the end, though, The Brutal Telling is the kind of mystery that envelopes the reader, that leaves him wanting more, that makes him happy to open the pages of the book and get reacquainted with characters he considers “old friends.”

Even though I closed this book with sadness, I can’t wait until I have an opportunity to read Penny’s next book in the series. Louise Penny is one of the finest mystery authors writing today.


Recommended: If you love a good literary mystery, then this is the book for you.

Note: If you think you recognize Ruth Zardo’s poetry, you probably do. The poetry Penny has used, with permission of the authors, belongs to Margaret Atwood, Ralph Hodgson, and Mike Freeman.

The “Inspector Gamache” mysteries are, in order of publication:

Still Life
A Fatal Grace
The Cruelest Month
A Rule Against Murder
The Brutal Telling
Bury Your Dead
A Trick of the Light
(To be released in the US on August 30, 2011)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Book Review - Classics - The Golden Bowl by Henry James

Although The Portrait of a Lady will no doubt always be Henry James' most read and most loved novel, I think The Golden Bowl is his masterpiece. Published in 1904, The Golden Bowl, along with The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove, constitute James' final, and most complex, phase as a novelist.

The Golden Bowl, set in England and in Italy from 1903 to 1906, is the story of four people, two men and two women, and two marriages. Two marriages whose core holds the same secret, the same unacknowledged truth. The plot is a simple one and revolves around that most human of all "failings" - adultery - or at least the suspicion of adultery, and in this case, suspicion may prove to be more deadly than the actual deed, itself.

Adam Verver, a wealthy American industrialist, sans scruples, has acquired almost all the material possessions his heart desires. When he travels to Europe, accompanied by his young daughter, Maggie, however, he has one important "purchase" yet to make - a husband for Maggie. He thinks he's found the perfect candidate in Prince Amerigo. And in some ways, he has. Although now impoverished, Prince Amerigo is descended from an aristocratic Florentine family, a family who lives in the once elegant Palazzo Ugolini. Prince Amerigo can provide Adam Verver's descendants with something Adam, himself, cannot provide at any price...a title. Maggie, herself, finds the Prince charming and delightful and is not at all averse to her father's plans for her marriage. But the course of love and marriage is, more often than not, a rocky road, and predictably, complications lie in wait for Maggie in the form of her best friend, Charlotte Stant, an impoverished woman who's long been involved in a torrid sexual liaison with Prince Amerigo...without Maggie's knowledge, of course. (Not really a spoiler.)

Fanny Assingham, a American expatriate now living in London, is well aware of the relationship between Prince Amerigo and Charlotte Stant, and she believes she's come up with the perfect solution. Much to Prince Amerigo's dismay, Fanny suggests that Adam and Charlotte marry. Then all four people will be happy, or so Fanny thinks. But this is Henry James, and as in real life, happiness doesn't come quite that easily. Although Adam believes Charlotte is marrying him for financial security alone, Charlotte has reasons for marrying Adam that are different from what anyone, save perhaps the Prince, suspects.

One of the biggest problems in the marriages of Adam and Maggie isn't, as might be expected, the fact that their respective mates have long been lovers. The real problems surface only when Adam and Maggie, who are both very happy with the situation, begin spending far too much time together, leaving Prince Amerigo and Charlotte to devise ways to amuse themselves, and amuse themselves, they do. But, are they to blame? Or must part of the blame lie with Adam and Maggie, themselves, who are so involved with each other and so wrapped up in each others lives that they fail to notice the problems inherent in their own marriages or their mates' attraction to each other?

The Golden Bowl is a book filled with ambiguity. Nothing is black or white, bad or good, something that makes it all the more challenging for its reader, but all the more rewarding as well. The Golden Bowl is a character study par excellence, and at least in my opinion, it is filled with more innuendo and delicately shaded nuance than are any of James' other books. In this novel, James left much for the reader, himself, to answer. And, lest any reader think the "sin" in this book is adultery, it isn't. It's excessive attachment, excessive clinging, excessive selfishness. Prince Amerigo and Charlotte are perfectly matched in their passion and sensuality; we know, without a doubt, that these two people were destined to love each other. Adam and Maggie are perfectly matched in their passive-aggressive tendencies and in their desire to take what they want despite the feelings of others; this "perfection," however, could ultimately become their tragedy.

The book's title isn't superfluous. The Golden Bowl really does contain a golden bowl, and it's this that leads Maggie to the startling realization that both her husband and her best friend have been lying to her. Does she assert herself? Does she become a victim? Does she resign herself to her fate, much as Isabel Archer did in The Portrait of a Lady? That, of course, would be unfair to disclose, but it is Maggie's actions that bring The Golden Bowl to a surprising close.

The Golden Bowl is Henry James at his finest. His narrative powers, in my opinion, have never been greater than they are in this magnificent novel, though I do know people who find this book rather boring. I really think those people wouldn't like James no matter what book of his they chose to read, and if one is new to the work of Henry James, this isn't the place to begin. Daisy Miller would be a far better choice. I found The Golden Bowl to be a richly dense tapestry, as James layers scene upon scene, set piece upon set piece, weaving all into a seamless whole.

The Golden Bowl does contain James' beautiful, flowing, convoluted prose that meanders and continuously folds back on itself again and again, however, I don't think the prose is quite as convoluted as it is in The Portrait of a Lady. The Golden Bowl is divided into two sections, with the first being titled "The Prince" and the second, "The Princess." As the novel opens, Prince Amerigo is in London, considering his options, and lost in thought regarding Maggie Verver:

The Prince had always liked his London, when it had come to him; he was one of the modern Romans who find by the Thames a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber. Brought up on the legend of the City to which the world paid tribute, he recognised in the present London much more than in contemporary Rome the real dimensions of such a case. If it was a question of an Imperium, he said to himself, and if one wished, as a Roman, to recover a little the sense of that, the place to do so was on London Bridge, or even, on a fine afternoon in May, at Hyde Park Corner.

Perhaps, more than any other book written by James, The Golden Bowl is a very interior, introspective book. Yes, even more so than The Portrait of a Lady. While that book concerned the internal torment of one very naive person, Isabel Archer, The Golden Bowl contains the internal torment of two, Prince Amerigo and Maggie Verver, and by extension, Adam Verver and Charlotte Stant, and save for Maggie, none of these characters is, in the slightest bit, naive.

Surprisingly, for me at least, the most sympathetic character isn't Maggie, it's Charlotte. Maggie and Adam are "collectors" - they treat people in much the same way they treat objets d'art. It is indicative of the genius of James, however, that our sympathies never settle, but constantly shift, first to Charlotte, then to Maggie, then to Adam, then to the Prince. It is also indicative of the genius of James that despite the tragic failings of each of the four main characters in The Golden Bowl, there is something to be pitied in each of them as well.

If I have one small criticism of this magnificent novel, it's the fact that it lacks story tension, and it might be a little overly long. We know Prince Amerigo and Charlotte are being drawn to each other like moths to a flame. It's not really a question of "if" but rather "when" and what the consequences will be.

In the end, The Golden Bowl revolves, not around adultery, but around the torment we endure because of the lies we tell ourselves, the words we leave unspoken. This book constantly asks the questions: What constitutes truth? What constitutes a lie? What is right and what is wrong? James never makes the answers clear and this book is filled with much nebulous ambiguity. In the final analysis, one must ask oneself if tragedy lies in the doing or in the unacknowledged desire of what we want, and, perhaps, need, to happen.


Recommended: To those who love highly literary, interior novels and character studies. It could be too convoluted and interior and slow-paced to suit some readers. Those who love beautiful prose will probably like this book, though. It's flowing and graceful, if a tad slow-moving.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review - Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

The Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead was the first of Marilynne Robinson’s books I read, but I loved it so much I wanted to explore her other novels, and I think there are only two – Housekeeping and Home. Housekeeping begins by confronting the reader with a mystery of sorts:

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.

Right away, I wondered why Ruth and Lucille Stone had so many caretakers. Were they such disobedient girls that no one wanted them? How did they lose their mother, their grandmother (well, she did die, no mystery there), and their great aunts? All of them? What caused the comical and sometimes bumbling Lily and Nona to flee?

I soon saw that where Gilead revolved around the relationship between a father and a son, Housekeeping, which is set in the fictional town of Fingerbone in the 1950s, was going to revolve around women and their more difficult and complicated relationships. That brought up more questions: Do men always leave or die prematurely in Ruth and Lucille’s world? In the end, are woman always left alone?

Set in the desolate mountains of Idaho, Fingerbone seems like the end of the world, and it most definitely is the end of the line for several of the town’s train travelers. Near the beginning of the book, Robinson dispenses with the only man around by writing of the catastrophic derailing of a train and its slide into Fingerbone Lake. That derailing took the life of Edmund Foster, the grandfather of Ruthie, our protagonist, and her younger sister, Lucille. In fact, it was Edmund who relocated the family to Idaho. It was Edmund who set into motion the family’s strange relationship with the wild, windswept, wintry landscape of the northern mountains. Edmund’s slide into his watery grave, for his body was never recovered, highlights one of this book’s major themes: loss and how different people deal with loss and the grief it ensues.

Strangely – or maybe not so strangely – Edmund’s wife, Sylvia (not to be confused with her youngest daughter, Sylvie) decides to deal with the loss of her husband by simply not speaking of him. Our narrator, Ruthie, and her younger sister, Lucille, suffer a similar loss when their mother, Helen, drops them off on the porch of their grandmother Sylvia’s Fingerbone home, with only a box of graham crackers to comfort them, then drives her borrowed car off a cliff and into the lake. Ruthie and Lucille are left with nothing but questions about who their mother really was, while Sylvia deals with the grief of losing her middle daughter in the same way she dealt with the loss of her husband. She simply doesn’t speak of Helen or the way she died.

While Grandma Sylvia tries her best to give Ruthie and Lucille a sense of normalcy, Grandma Sylvia also knows she can’t live forever. When she dies five years into caring for her motherless granddaughters, it’s her sisters-in-law, the quaint-but-bumbling Lily and Nona Foster, who arrive in Fingerbone to care for the girls.

Lily and Nona add a bit of humor to this otherwise delicately bleak book. They’re people one would expect to meet in an English drawing room farce rather than in dreary Fingerbone, Idaho. The sisters really don’t resemble the Foster family at all, save for the fact that neither one comes right out and says what she really means. Here are Lily and Nona discussing their first glimpse of Sylvie, Ruth’s and Lucille’s youngest aunt, and the person they hope will take over as caretaker of the girls:

So when Lily said, with a glance at Nona, “What a lovely dress,” it was as if to say, “She seems rather sane! She seems rather normal!” And when Nona said, “You look very well,” it was as if to say, “Perhaps she’ll do! Perhaps she can stay and we can go!”

And, go they do, the very same day Sylvie arrives. It’s not Ruth and Lucille they cannot tolerate; it’s Fingerbone. From this point on, Sylvie Foster Fisher will be the primary caretaker of Ruth and Lucille Stone, and the book is really the story of Ruthie’s relationship with her aunt, Sylvie, an eccentric, free spirited woman, and how that relationship, for better or worse, shapes the person Ruthie becomes.

There isn’t much plot in Housekeeping. Almost all of the book’s events take place in or around the rather odd house Edmund Foster built at the edge of town. I’m a fan of character driven novels over plot driven ones. I certainly don’t need a book to be “heavily plotted.” I love Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and John Banville’s The Sea, neither of which can be said to be heavily plotted. But, while there are few “big events” in Housekeeping, the set pieces, most of which are only one or two pages in length, are lovely.

One of the book’s key scenes occurs when Lucille, who is growing tired of Sylvie’s bohemian ways, turns on the light during dinner. Sylvie prefers to eat dinner in the dark because she dislikes the starkness of the dark windows against a lighted room, however the light only serves to illuminate Sylvie’s complete ineptitude as a housekeeper. Dried leaves have gathered in the corners of the rooms, newspapers are stacked precariously, one on top of another, burned curtains are hanging at the windows, and mountains of tin cans with the labels removed – Sylvie’s newest “housekeeping fetish” – are ringed around the room. Even Sylvie doesn’t know why she’s saving so many of them.

Water plays an important role in this book. We never really get a good look at the town of Fingerbone, which was “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather,” but we do get several looks at the lake that overshadows it, the same lake that took the lives of both Edmund Foster, and many years later, his adult daughter, Helen. The lake, which is “a place of distinctly domestic disorder,” surrounded by “uncountable mountains” seems to draw, if not Lucille, at least Ruthie and Sylvie, to it. And even those residents of Fingerbone who were not drawn to the lake could not escape its waters, for every spring, the lake flooded the town, washing away the past, but not before tarnishing the present, and perhaps the future as well, with the mud and silt such a washing away would bring. Strangely, it’s the lake that will allow two of the book’s characters to escape to what we hope will be a happier life, a life that’s at least free of the mores and fears and judgments of the narrow minded townspeople.

It’s difficult to write about Housekeeping without giving away its scant plot, but suffice to say that Ruthie and Lucille decide on very different paths in life, and for the first time, the lives of the sisters diverge. This is especially difficult for Ruthie because Lucille had always spoken for both herself and for her older sister. Now, Ruth has to find someone else with whom to identify. And, the town does not take kindly to gentle Aunt Sylvie and the cavalier way Sylvie treats things like church and school and well, housekeeping, itself. The townsfolk despise Sylvie’s transience and believe something should be done to save Ruthie from suffering the same fate. Yet they seem to overlook, despite the yearly flooding, the fact that life, by its very nature, is transient. Everything gets swept away...eventually.

Robinson is excellent at characterization. She not only sums up who her characters are on the inside, she paints a vivid portrait of how they appear on the outside as well. This is Ruthie describing Bernice, a woman who lived in their building in the Middle West, before they came to Fingerbone:

Bernice, who lived below us, was our only visitor. She had lavender lips and orange hair, and arched eyebrows each drawn in a single brown line, a contest between practice and palsy which sometimes ended at her ear. She was an old woman, but managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease. She stood any number of hours in our doorway, her long back arched and her arms folded on her spherical belly, telling scandalous stories in a voice hushed in deference to the fact that Lucille and I should not be hearing them.

The writing, most of which is bleak and not at all comical, is gorgeous and flowing. I’ve heard some people call the book one long poem. It’s not a poem, though, it’s a novel written in low-key, poetic sentences that remain lyrical while never showing off. Here’s Ruthie talking about one of the family dinners, eaten with Sylvie in the darkness of a summer night, and this is, I think, one of the most beautiful passages in the entire book:

We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others and we had lost our sight.

Robinson also has a keen eye for describing nature, especially winter:

If one pried up earth with a stick on those days, one found massed shafts of ice, slender as needles and pure as spring water.

As one reads Housekeeping, one becomes aware that it isn’t a book of ideas so much as it’s a book of symbols and impressions. Robinson has assigned Ruthie the task of narrating with Emerson’s “transparent eyeball.” Emerson, himself, described the “transparent eyeball” in his 1836 essay titled Nature:

We return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, - no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, - my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, - all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

If that sounds a bit mystical, Emerson meant for it to sound that way, and Robinson’s book, too, explores people who have access to the mystical in life, at least in nature. On one very strange trip across the lake in a stolen boat, Sylvie tells Ruth how she (Sylvie) can see and feel the presence of the ghosts of children, and we have no reason to disbelieve her.

Housekeeping is a profound book, without really sounding profound, but it isn’t a book that will make most readers feel better about life. Housekeeping lets us know that loneliness and isolation are necessary parts of life, perhaps big parts of life that must be endured and embraced by everyone. The mystery in this book – why Helen drove the borrowed car into Fingerbone Lake, why Grandma Sylvia refused to acknowledge her grief at the loss of her husband and daughter, why Ruthie and Lucille acted as they did – is best expressed by Ruthie as she muses on the suicide of Helen:

Then there is the matter of my mother's abandonment of me. Again, this is the common experience. They walk ahead of us, and walk too fast, and forget us, they are so lost in thoughts of their own, and soon or late they disappear. The only mystery is that we expect it to be otherwise.

In Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson has crafted a haunting novel that leaves both the book’s characters and the reader with more questions than it answers, questions that are, perhaps, unanswerable.


Recommended: Absolutely, for lovers of highly literary, character driven fiction. Be aware, though, that this is a very quiet novel.

You can find my review of Gilead here.