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.

Excerpts:
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.

Excerpts:
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.

Excerpts:
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.

Excerpts:
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.

Excerpts:
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!

Book: The Thirteenth Tale

Title: The Thirteenth Tale
Author: Diane Setterfield
Genre: Fiction
Length: 406 pgs

Summary: Margaret Lea has a secret about her birth; a secret that haunts her to this day, and affects every decision she makes. She is the daughter of an antique book dealer, and so is his helpmate in running the bookshop that maintains their lifestyle. One day, a letter arrives for Margaret, written in an awful hand, requesting that she journey to the home of the infamous writer, Vida Winter. Miss Winter is infamous because of her past, or lack of it, for with every interview there is a new rendition, and none of them are true. There is no record of Miss Winter’s birth, her childhood…nothing to say who she was before she appeared in the literary world. Miss Winter, it seems, wants to tell the truth of her past for the first time, ever, and she has chosen Margaret for the job. After thirty (or forty, perhaps?) years of public speculation about the past of Miss Vida Winter, and the plot of the missing thirteenth tale from her book Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation (only twelve were released), Vida Winter is ready to speak the truth.

Excerpts:
pg 4 – (I never read without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vividly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now. Reading can be dangerous.)

pg 5 – Some writers don’t like interviews of course. They get cross about it. “Same old questions,” they complain. Well, what do they expect? Reporters are hacks. We writers are the real thing. Just because they always ask the same questions, it doesn’t mean we have to give them the same answers, does it? I mean, making things up, it’s what we do for a living.

pg 32 – I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life, and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were at once more banal and essential than that. When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a yearning for the lost pleasure of books. […] Miss Winter restored to me the virginal qualities of the novice reader, and then with her stories she ravished me.

pg 45 – People with ambition don’t give a damn what other people think about them. I hardly suppose Wagner lost sleep worrying whether he’d hurt someone’s feelings. But then he was a genius.

pg 46 – “Readers,” continued Miss Winter, “are fools. They believe all writing is autobiographical. And so it is, but not in the way they think. The writer’s life needs time to rot away before it can be used to nourish a work of fiction. It must be allowed to decay. […] To write my books I needed my past left in peace, for time to do its work.”

pg 100 – You could hear the power of his brain in his voice, which was quiet but quick, with a facility for finding the right words for the right person at the right time. You could see it in his eyes: dark brown and very shiny, like a bird’s eyes, observant, intent, with strong, neat eyebrows above.

pg 177 – As he listened, he had been been rather struck by her queer little voice. Despite its distinctively feminine pitch it had more than a little masculine authority about it. She was articulate. She had an amusing habit of expressing views of her own with the same measured command as when she was explaining a theory by some authority she had read. And when she paused for breath at the end of a sentence, she would give him a quick look–he had found it disconcerting the first time, though he now found it rather droll–to let him know whether he was allowed to speak or whether she intended to go on speaking herself.

pg 220 – His voice had the unmistakable lightness of someone telling something extremely important. A story so cherished it had to be dressed in casualness to disguise its significance in case the listener turned out to be unsympathetic.

pg 289 – Do you know the feeling when you start reading a new book before the membrane of the last one has had time to close behind you? You leave the previous book with ideas and themes–characters even–caught in the fibers of your clothes, and when you open the new book, they are still with you.

Why should you read this book?
Because it is a love story to readers and writers. This just might be my favorite book if 2007, just as Elantris was my favorite of 2006. I will be hard-pressed, I think, to find another book that immediately enfolded me in its mystery and charm, leaving me dazed in my everyday activities as I contemplated the characters and plot. Every character is tangible and sympathetic, the setting is distinct, and the plot is original (to me, at least). The style is romantic in the classic sense of the word, yet entirely believable given the narrator’s (Margaret) deep appreciation of books. We’re never given a time period, yet I’m left with the impression that Margaret lives in the 1930s, 40s, or perhaps even 1950s.

Reading this book left me with sensations of DuMarier’s Rebecca, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, LeFanu’s The Wyvern Mystery, and other such romantic, gothic, books. Read it for the intense characterizations. Read it to know the language of a bibliophile speaking with another bibliophile, describing favorite works. I feel as though The Thirteenth Tale has changed me and so my writing: it’s let me believe that there are readers willing to entertain a more romantic and classic style from a modern author, and that is good news indeed.

Book: The Bronte Project

Title: The Brontë Project: A Novel of Passion, Desire, and Good PR
Author: Jennifer Vandever
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Length: 288 pgs

Summary: Sara, a graduate student working on a PhD thesis, is attempting the impossible: she is looking for the missing letters of Charlotte Brontë. Sound similar to a book I just read/reviewed? Or maybe this? It must be the fashion these days. However, this book stays firmly in the present, and follows Sara’s journey from being engaged to a wonderful man, to finding her place in the world once he decides he must follow his dream to live in the squalor of Paris, à la George Orwell.

Excerpts:
pg 10 – Sara took a deep, stabilizing breath. Claire was like the anti-Sara: Where Sara was slim-hipped, small-breasted, and quiet, Claire was shapely and loud. […] Sara favored the practical and the classic in clothing and colors that, as her mother liked to point out, occurred naturally in bruises–blacks, grays, and blues–while Claire went for the blatantly trendy and expensive. On Claire even black looked red.

pg 36 – Sara normally had a tireless patience for these books. But now she realized resentfully that these people she was reading about simply lacked cable television. Get over it, she found herself thinking about yet another governess suffering from an unquenchable longing. Get over it and get cable.

pg 92 – “You see, when there is is a mystery standing in front of me with her arms folded, I must investigate. I must unpeel what I do not understand. I am French.”
“Well, I’m American and we destroy what we don’t understand.”

pg 95 – “On you, she is silent. You see, your influence already. A smart person who rarely talks terrifies people–in her mind she’s forming judgments. What does she think? It’s a kind of power and Claire collects power. Did she tell you she’s trying to be quieter?”
Sara stared off thoughtfully, feeling the weight of the liqueur on her thoughts. She looked at Denis and smiled mysteriously. If silence was her power, so be it. She took the bottle from him and poured herself another shot.
“She says nothing!” Denis exclaimed.

Why should you read this book?
Vandever’s fiction is clean and easy to understand; she manages to do the unthinkable, which is to make the audience feel for a type A personality as the main character. I call this book women’s fiction rather than a romance because, like romances, Sara has entanglements with the other sex, but, unlike romances, the story is not about finding the perfect man for Sara, it’s about Sara finding herself. Vandever uses quotes from Brontë’s letters to start the beginning of each chapter…sometimes they make sense to me and other times they seem randomly chosen. Such is the danger of using quotes to begin passages of your prose. For a better example, try Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. I have to say I liked this book, though I can’t exactly say why. It’s a simple story about the year in the life of Sara, and there are no real villains–maybe that’s why I liked it. Similar to St Ursula’s Girls Against the Atomic Bomb, I suppose. Give it a try, see what you can learn about your own fiction by reading Vandever’s.

Book: A Hole in the Earth

Title: A Hole in the Earth
Author: Robert Bausch
Genre: Narrative Fiction
Length: 368 pgs

A Hole in the Earth by Robert Bausch is a first-person narrative about “the summer” as described by Henry Porter, the narrator and main character. A middle school history teacher with a penchant for gambling, Porter is a divorce who has not seen his daughter Nicole in five years, which makes her about seventeen. The school year has just ended, and Porter is on his way out the door to the race track to make a couple bucks when Nicole shows up at his door with her friend, Sam. That same day, Porter’s girlfriend of three years Elizabeth begins to act strangely, and she soon reveals that she is pregnant. What starts out as a series of unexpected events leads to the inner-workings of a quiet man; Porter’s narrative tells us everything he cannot or does not say, and how that can make or break his relationships with the people around him.

Excerpts:
pg 31 – I think women are more conscious of what their faces are doing than men are. I think they know when they are smiling, and they use expressions of wonder and awe on purpose. I tihnk women bestow smiles when they want to give a person something of value. And finally, I think most men don’t know this. So millions of smiles go to waste, and women spend a lot of time talking to themselves about how unobservant men are.

pg 35 – What truly troubled me, though, was being awake. Having to pile up the hours each day, worrying about money, hoping Elizabeth would call, and praying she would not, feeling alone even when I was with her, because there was never anything to say.

pg 36 – I didn’t know if I loved her. Since Catherine left me, I hadn’t thought about love at all. I hate to say the word, and I tihnk people overuse it so much that it has lost its radiance. It’s now a very ordinary, common thing. Like lint. Or paper clips. Nevertheless, some days were awful because I realized I might not see Elizabeth.
And then again, sometimes I was terrified I would see her.

pg 124 – [Love] may be the most transient thing on earth. More transient than hate — which requires so much energy it eventually wears out and turns to a kind of burned-out forgiveness. Most people feel more charitable toward a person they used to hate than one they used to love.

pg 131 – Now I’m at the age where [my father] thinks he has the answer to that question. According to my father, our generation gave the world: Ronald Reagan, the National Organization for Women, political correctness, a significant and intractable drug problem that won’t go away, video games, music TV, game shows, Prince, Madonna, porn video, action movies, sports celebrities, miniseries, the sound bite, computer-generated mail, toxic waste, Geraldo Rivera, and AIDS.
That’s it.

Why should you read this book?
I liked this book. This is actually the first book in a long time where I stayed up until 4 am because I wanted to finish reading it, which was both pleasing and exhausting. Being a female, reading about a man’s mind is of course intriguing, but the way Bausch writes Henry Porter, I feel like I know the man, or that I have known him, or that I might know him. Bausch makes his characters seem real, human, tragic. And that’s why I suggest you might want to read this book. When reading this book, you feel as though you’re part of a conversation, and that each chapter is merely another session of sitting with Henry at your local coffee shop as you talk about what happened this past summer.

For the writers, you should read this book if you are looking for examples of throwing a lot of craziness at your character, and how to make his or her reaction plausible. Every once in a while, I think Bausch gets a little too wrapped up in Porter’s thoughts, but then again, I was reading with the rest of my family in the room so they were distracting me a bit. Once alone, I thought the pacing was perfect for the story. To be succint, read this book for an example of good pacing, an interesting story, and well-crafted prose. All around, a great read.