Book: Arranged Marriage

Title: Arranged Marriage
Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Genre: Short Stories
Length: 307 pgs

Summary: A powerful, eye-opening, easy to read set of thoughtful short stories set in India and the USA about the lives and loves of Indian women in the world.

pg 59 – You hate it when he talks like that, biting off the ends of words and spitting them out. You try to tell yourself that he wants to hurt you only because he’s hurting, because he’s jealous of how much [Mother] means to you. You try to remember the special times. […] You try to shut out the whispery voice that lives behind the ache in your eyes, the one that started when you said yes and he kissed you, hard.

Mistake, says the voice, whispering in your mother’s tones.

Sometimes the voice sounds different, not hers. It is a rushed intake of air, as just before someone asks a question that might change your life. You don’t want to hear the question, which might be how did you get yourself into this mess, or perhaps why, so you leap in with that magic word. Love, you tell yourself, lovelovelvoe. But you know, deep down, that word solves nothing.

Why should you read this book?
This is a powerful testament to Divakaruni’s talent as a poet and prose writer. The excerpt above shows how powerful her writing is; my theory is because she was a poet first and then turned to prose. You can tell how carefully she picks each word, how she puts them together to get just the effect she’s looking for.

Read this book for an example of how to organize your short stories/chapters in a way that is thoughtful and provocative and for heartbreakingly human characters. For those of you writing about Eastern culture, read this book for one author’s take on how to introduce Eastern culture to a Western reader in a subtle, sophisticated manner.

From the Notebook: All About Lovers

In the fall I read many wonderful texts from American Lit (circa 1820 – 1860), especially some great things by feminist writers of the time. To celebrate the coming of Valentine’s Day, here is Fanny Fern’s hilarious satire of lovers and love.

Fanny FernFor a little bit of background, Fanny Fern was the pen-name of Sarah Willis Parton, a woman writing in the 1850s onward. Sarah began her writing career because her second marriage was a bust (the first made her a widow, she left the second, presumably because he was abusive), and neither her family nor her in-laws wanted to support her or her children. (To be fair, it wasn’t their fault that she couldn’t keep a husband… and… I’m being completely sarcastic.) Unable to support her girls, she sent her eldest to live with family, and began writing.

Sarah’s best work comes out in the short narrative, often in her articles written for local newspapers. She had a huge following, both men and women, and had a healthy dose of critics who thought she was much too assertive and aggressive of a writer to be a true woman. She had a great sense of humor about it all, as exampled in one of her articles where she describes going to the theatre only to watch a more glamorous woman be pointed out as “that writer, Fanny Fern.”

Sarah wrote both sentimentally and sarcastically, (read Ruth Hall for a great example of both), but I’m providing a sample of one of her more satirical works. The following article advises young women to test their young men with little annoyances, just to see how they might fare in marriage.

All About Lovers

Nothing like the old-fashioned long “engagements,” say we. Then you have a chance to find out something about a young man before marriage. Now-a-days matrimony follows so close upon the heels of “an offer,” that it is no wonder our young people have a deal of sad thinking to do afterward. There are a thousand little things in daily intercourse of my duration, which are constantly resolving themselves into test of character; slight they may be, but very significant.

Some forlorn old lady must have an escort home of a cold evening; she walks slow, and tells the same story many times: see how your lover comports himself under this. He is asked to read aloud in some home circle, some book he has already perused in private, or some one in which he is not at all interested: watch him then. Notice, also, if he invariably takes the most comfortable chair in the room, “never thinking” to offer it to a person who may enter till he or she is already seated. Invite him to carve for you at the table. Give him a letter to drop in the post-office, and find out if it ever leaves that grave–his pocket. Open and read his favorite favorite newspaper before he gets a chance to do so. Mislay his cigar-case. Lose his cane. Sit accidentally on his new beaver [hat]. Praise another man’s coat or cravat. Differ from him in a favorite opinion. Put a spoonful of gravy on his meat instead of his potatoes.

Ah, you may laugh! But just try him in these ways, and see how he will wear; for it is not the great things of life over which we mortals stumble. A rock we walk around; a mountain we cross: it is the unobserved, unexpected, unlooked-for little sticks and pebbles which cause us to halt on life’s journey.

New York Ledger July 30, 1859

When I first read this list of annoyances, I couldn’t help but laugh, but Fanny Fern is completely right. For all her satire, she gives excellent advice for anyone in a relationship or about to start a new one. We “stumbling mortals” never seem to pay attention to the little things, but I know it’s the build-up of the little things that make me just explode sometimes. So to those of you reading this blog, if the significant person in your life starts to really annoy you, take a second look. They might be doing it on purpose.

Book: Evening

Title: Evening
Author: Susan Minot
Genre: Fiction
Length: 264 pgs

Summary: Ann Grant Lord is dying. As she lays in bed drifting in and out of consciousness, memories of a long-forgotten love affair are triggered by the smell of a balsam pillow.

pg 12 – Bertie frankly found her a little distant and cold. Dr Baker found [all women] mysterious to a point and Ann Lord had her own brand of mystery. She always looked well turned out and was a little cool ten she would surprise you with a little jolt of something witty and inviting. It was nearly flirtation and challanged something in him. Of course he did not relate that to his wife. He knew that much about women.

pg 14 – No doubt at the time they affected her, stirred some reaction, irritated or pleased her, but now most of them gave off neither heat nor cold and she watched them drop into the gaping dark hole of meaningless things she had nto forgotten, things one level up from the far vaster place where lay all the unremembered things.

pg 179 – Hope is better than mistery, he said. Or despair.
Hope belongs in the same box as despair.
Hope is not so bad, he said.
At least despair has truth in it.
You’re in a dark mood today.

pg 241 – Later in life Ann would learn that when certain men made decisions they would stick to them no matter how much it might torture them afterwards they would stick to their decision. Men, she learned, would rather suffer than change their minds or their habits. They could develop elaborate systems for containing pain, sometimes so successful they would remain completely unaware of the vastness of the pain they posessed.

Why should you read this book?
The text has a certain poetry to it, once you get used to its peculiarity. For instance: there are no double-quote marks denoting speech. My third excerpt above is an example of every conversation in the book. That’s one of the more straight-forward conversations. The entire book is a sort of rambling narration, disjointed in its timeline and sometimes in its sentence structure. Makes for frustrating reading if you don’t have the patience to work through it. An interesting idea, with an interesting execution, I can’t decide if I actually liked this book. As the narration is hazy, seen through the drugged mind of a cancer patient, the reader has a distinct level of abstraction so that no real connection is ever made with the characters or, dare I say it, plot.

WIP: First Paragraphs

Caricature drawn by Worderella
Caricature drawn by Worderella

Everyone talks about how important a first line is, how important the first page is, of any good piece of writing. We go on about how the idea needs to grab the reader, to hook them as one might hook a fish. But we never really give our own examples, unless we’re sure we’ve got it down. And the thing is, I don’t know if I have it down. I’m fairly certain I don’t, if only because I’m a type A perfectionist who second-guesses herself a lot.

So this is what I’m going to do: Below is the hook, and first lines of my working!title Trentwood’s Orphan. Give me your honest opinion, otherwise, I’ll never learn my lesson. But… also keep in mind that this is First Draft B, so I realize it’s still pretty rough.

As always, this is my writing and it is copyright protected, so please, let’s not spread this around and take it for yourself.

The hook for the novel is as follows: A grieving daughter encounters love and ghosts in Victorian England.

And so the novel begins…

Continue reading

Book: Never Let Me Go

never_let_me_golargeTitle: Never Let Me Go
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Fiction
Length: 288 pgs

Summary: Kathy grew up in the sheltered, English countryside at the Hailsham boarding school, where the students were raised to believe they were special. Only in her teens does Hailsham reveal how special the students are. Kathy’s narrative slowly reveals from hindsight how a simple deception defines her life.

pg 195 – But I didn’t say or do anything. It was partly, I suppose, that I was so floored by the fact that Ruth would come out with such a trick. I remember a huge tiredness coming over me, a kind of lethargy in the face of the tangled mess before me. It was like being given a maths problem when your brain’s exhausted, and you know there’s some far-off solution, but you can’t work up the energy even to give it a go.

pg 208 – Sometimes I get so immersed in my own company, if I unexpectedly run into someone I know, it’s a bit of a shock and takes me a while to adjust.

Why should you read this book?
This story is intense, subtle, delicate. Its characters are flawed, obsessively so. The overlying plot is science fiction, but without the hopeful ending we expect from genre fiction. Definitely a literary piece, I’m debating whether I actually liked it. For you writers, however, read this for a good example of a first-person narration where the narrator is sensitive, passive, and suspicious without really knowing why. There is no real oppressor or antagonist, reflecting life. If you liked Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which I did, then you will definitely like this book.

August 2010 Update

This book is now being made into a movie, which looks breathtaking: Never Let me Go theatrical trailer

Book: The Wayward Muse

Title: The Wayward Muse
Author: Elizabeth Hickey
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 293 pgs

Summary: It is the beginning of the Victorian era, and Jane is a very ugly girl. On an outing with her sister, Jane is spotted by two artists that consider her the most beautiful woman in the world, thus changing her life forever.

pg 1 – Jane Burden was considered the plainest girl on Holywell Street, and that Oxford slum was home to many worthy candidates for the title. Mary Porter, who was afflicted with a lazy eye and copious freckles, lived there, just across the street from Alice Cunningham, who had crooked, discolored teeth and thinning hair. Number 142 was the residence of Catherine Blair, whose neck and ear had been horribly burned when she was a baby, and whose left leg was somewhat shorter than the right. But even she was considered marginally better looking than Jane.

pg 2 – But it was her expression that truly made Jane Burden plain. For she seldom smiled, and her green eyes, which might have been considered striking on another girl, were empty. They weren’t sad; sadness could be fetching. They were not grave and serious or soft and pleading or tearful and melancholy. They were blank. Jane’s eyes told everyone who met her of her misery and her despair. They told of a girl who had ceased to hope for anything, who had gone deep inside herself to withstand her lot. It made the others uneasy.

pg 53 – Jane only laughed. Rosetti knew something that the people of Holywell street did not. He knew she was a fairy queen. […] Her silence was now called dignity. Her height and her skinniness were regal rather than ugly.

pg 286 – “What is my mind made of?” asked Jane.
“Oh, I think it’s a willow basket,” said Morris. He put down his pipe and stood up. “Soft and pliable but incredibly resistant. The only way to unravel it would be with great violence and a pair of very sharp scissors.”

Why should you read this book?
Excellent writing, as you’ll find in the excerpts I’ve posted. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, despite Jane’s character, which makes me respect Hickey even more. Once I realized the plot, I almost put the book away, except Hickey’s writing and depiction of the characters stayed my hand. This book is one of the best fiction depictions of a real Victorian marriage that I have read yet; the main characters are real people, and while the story may not be entirely factual, the plot seems to follow the real time-line faithfully. The writing style is simple yet lush, the scenery vivid, the characters organic and sympathetic. Anyone working on making their characters flawed, especially the main character, should read this book as an example of how to maintain your reader’s interest.

Book: A Poisoned Season

Title: A Poisoned Season
Author: Tasha Alexander
Genre: Historical Mystery
Length: 306 pgs

Summary: It is the start of the summer Season in London, and everyone worth speaking to is whispering about Mr Charles Berry, an alcohol-and-woman-happy man claiming to be the lost descendant of the dauphin (that is, heir to Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette). Lady Emily Ashton, our heroine, becomes suspicious of Mr Berry as items once belonging to his “beloved grande-mere” are stolen from unsuspecting peerage about town. As deaths occur and the thief begins to stalk Emily, rather than running away or hiding behind her dear friend Colin Hargreaves, Emily uses her cleverness and curiosity to solve the mysteries plaguing London.

pg 5 – “Surely you’ve put aside all thoughts of studying during the Season?” he asked.
“Studying Greek, Mr Berry, is what will get me through the Season.”

pg 132 – His lips brushed my hand. “How do you like the room? I finally realized that if I’m to have any hope of marrying you, I’d have to show you my library first.”

pg 134 – I think had he the presence of mind to propose at that moment, I would have accepted. The combination of hearing him speak in such an enlightened manner and the perfect setting of his library would have been too much to resist.

pg 296 – Added to this angst was Colin’s absence. His actions during the past months had surprised me at every turn. He had not tried to keep me from pursuing my investigations and had offered assistance without taking charge on his own. And now, in the aftermath of it all, I wanted nothing more than to sit with him, in quiet triumph, discussing what had transpired.

I loved to flirt with him, tease him, to discuss Greek with him. But I had not expected to find that, as a partner, he could offer more than that. He challenged me, stimulated my thinking, and offered both comfort and support when I succumbed to frustration. Was it possible that, as his wife, I might grow more than if I remained alone?

Why should you read this book?
This was just the sort of book I needed to read. The voice (written in first person) is amusing, conversational, yet intelligent. We are given detail about the London Season and high society, without it dragging the story. Motives were plausible, and everyone had a story to tell. Even the bit players. And they were interesting stories. Alexander didn’t sugar-coat her description of life back then, especially in terms of relations between men and women, married and single; yet, everything was written tastefully. Read this book for an engaging heroine, a cozy mystery, and a fun read. Fun, I think, because of the pacing and the lively characters. This is the second in what I assume will be a popular series, and I’m thinking of going back to read the first book, which I have yet to do. Give it a try, I think you might like it!