Archive for the 'Novels' Category

I know it was free, but do I have to like it?

The nice people at Anansi Press give away free books on Facebook every now and then in exchange for 200-word reviews of said book. I cashed in recently and they sent me a new novel called Valmiki’s Daughter. Despite wanting to like it, well, we never really hit it off. I sent back this tepid review a few weeks ago, which I don’t think will ever see the light of day on their site, so here it is on mine – in all its lukewarm splendour.

I opened Valmiki’s Daughter by Shani Mootoo fearing it just wasn’t going to be my cup of chai. And despite the often evocative writing, the intriguing setting in sun-splashed Trinidad, the multifaceted themes of identity – and despite my own best efforts – I never really embraced the experience.

n20137676200_1387My outsider status is partly due to my lack of interest in gay-lesbian themes. But I must also confess an aversion to novels featuring a self-absorbed cast of characters who are, with few exceptions, pretty unlikeable – especially the men. (Satire excepted, of course, but Valmiki’s Daughter is earnest to the hilt.)

There is such a fog of sadness that clings to this novel. Viveka, the title character, is a young woman who discovers she loves other women – one in particular. Her father has lived a lie with his own homosexual longings, but does that mean she must also?

For a moment it appears Viveka will break free from the restrictive disapprovals of family and Indo-Trinidadian society: “She had no map of her future, but she knew who she was. She would not be diminished because of it.” And…

“In exchange for honesty, integrity, a lifetime of service, she prayed that she and all people like her be granted the freedom, so long as it did not hurt anyone, to love whomever they chose, to love well and have that love returned without judgment.”

Amen to that – even without the bargaining preamble. The hopeless ending, no matter how realistic it may be for those living a closeted existence, comes as such a disappointment. How sad.

At times Valmiki’s Daughter has an unfocused, second draft feel to it. Why does one of the principal characters – the captivating French woman Anick – only show up halfway through the book? And am I imagining this, or does the novel at times want to be more about Anick than Viveka?

Other quibbles: I’m not sure the showy second-person travelogue interspersed throughout always carries its weight, especially in the lengthy opening passage. And although I was initially impressed that the text was free of so many of the silly spell-check editing errors that creep in these days, there it was on the beach on page 380, “a slow parade of people in bathing suites.”

Nevertheless, there is clearly talent on display here. And I will freely admit that I am the wrong sort of reader for this novel. For the right sort of reader, I’m sure Valmiki’s Daughter will be more than a satisfying experience.

Advertisements

Yes, I’m a bit nuts too: 50,277 words in 29 days

you_won

Of course, the hard part is just beginning, but I’m going to savour my nifty little web badge for a day or two, if you don’t mind. It’s not every month I write a novel.

Can you ever read too many novels?

A while ago I wrote a blog post about research published in the May Scientific American touting the therapeutic value of writing. Now, research published in the June issue of New Scientist says longtime readers are more empathetic and have better social skills than their less well-read peers.

Interesting. Describing someone as being well-read connotes a certain worldliness that may well encompass social graces that are above average. It’s curious that even though film and television have been around so long, we never refer to people as being well-viewed. Despite its immediacy, film still can’t show us the hearts, minds and souls of others as effectively as fiction.

On the other hand, why do so many bookworms sometimes seem nerdy and maladjusted? I guess this particular research assumed a broad reading base and not an exclusive diet of SF or fantasy.

Here is a link to an interview with one of the researchers; the article on the New Scientist site is not available for free. For other interesting psychological research on reading and writing, check out the researchers’ blog On Fiction.

Photo credit: Moriza, Creative Commons

It’s hard not to gush about Price’s Lush Life

Lush Life by Richard Price is flat out one of the best books I’ve read. I’ve always loved his novels for the windows they open on urban life, for their rich portrayals of people caught in awful events, and for their sheer propulsive drive. Clockers, Samaritan, Freedomland — these are books one can’t help but guzzle in a few long, greedy gulps; Lush Life is no different.

But calling it a page-turner or crime novel devalues its abundant artistry, and there is much here to admire. I’m painfully aware that trying to tease apart all the different strands that go into fine writing is a difficult and clumsy business. Focusing on narrative pacing leads to a discussion of scene construction and before you know it, to plot, with several branching threads like tone and setting emerging at the same time. And can you really separate character development from dialogue, description and plot? The sum is definitely greater than the parts.

Nevertheless, Price’s greatest gifts may be with dialogue and in rendering character in a few deft strokes. Here’s his introduction of one of the main characters, Eric Cash, 35, who runs the front of the house at a restaurant called Berkmann’s:

He had no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill: playing the lead in a basement-theater production of The Dybbuk sponsored by 88 Forsyth House two years ago, his third small role since college, having a short story published in a now-defunct Alphabet City literary rag last year, his fourth in a decade, neither accomplishment leading to anything; and this unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger, without wanting to run face-first into a wall

Why is it so many writers still insist on providing physical details like hair or eye colour? Are those details ever important? Price, in just one sentence, situates his character within the arc of his own life — and then gives us the character’s response to that.

Even the relatively minor characters in Lush Life have lives that are rich and textured. Making the most of  the walk-ons gives a novel heft and authenticity; it makes the world being created seem deeper and therefore more believable.

Realistic dialogue is another technique that aids in the portrayal of character, but also keeps the narrative humming along.

“See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.”

“Maquetbumba?”…

“Dominican dude. Dead now. My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.”

“What kind of name is that.”

“I just said. Dominican.”

“What’s it mean, though.”

“Maquetumba? Man, you should know, you Dominican.”

“Puerto Rican.”

“Same shit, ain’t it?”

Tristan shrugged.

“Sss,” Little Dap sucked his teeth. “Like, ‘he who drops the most,’ some shit like that.”

“Drops what?”

Little Dap just stared at him.

And so on. I love the omission of question marks in some of those questions — it’s pitch perfect. Price manages to capture the speech sounds of these two without resorting to an overabundance of annoying word contortions. He gives us one “din’t” for didn’t, but doesn’t overdo it. “My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight,” is just as strong and less distracting than something like, “Ma brother tol’ me him ‘n’ ‘is crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.” Our ears are already filling in the speech patterns by that point.

Lastly, Price’s lower eastside Manhattan also figures as a character. Here’s a nice bit of rendered setting — a description of a desanctified synagogue that now serves as a condo — which also gives us some detail about the main character:

“But for all this reborn carriage house’s ingenuity, its artful attempt at appeasing its own history while declaring itself the newest of the new, it was the double layer of evicted ghosts — pauperish tenants, greenhorn parishioners — that still held sway for him, Matty having always been afflicted with Cop’s Eyes; the compulsion to imagine the overlay of the dead wherever he went.”

One of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing is to leave out the boring bits that readers tend to skip over. There’s nothing boring here; this is a riveting account of what happens after a routine mugging turns fatal when a twitchy teen holding the gun overreacts at a victim’s bravado. So rich. So believable. I recommend it without reservation.

Incidentally, there’s an interesting interview with Price about Lush Life at Amazon, here, and another from NPR’s Fresh Air, here.

What Yann Martel is doing…

…is beyond delightful. For the past year, the Booker Prize-winning author of Life of Pi has been sending a book to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, and lovingly documenting his choices on his web site, What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images)Harper is well-grounded in economics, conservatism and hockey — and pretty much nothing else. Unkind observers say, “stuffed shirt” or “automaton.” The conservative government’s parsimonious approach to arts funding precipitated Martel’s efforts, but many would argue the Tories have a record of other short-sighted and soulless policy choices since they took office back in February 2006. (Has it really only been two years?)

Martel’s choices aim at “expanding stillness.” Thus far Harper has been the recipient of everthing from Kafka to Lindgren, Acorn to Tolstoy.

Truly I say to you, there are only two sets of tools with which the rich soil of life can be worked: the religious and the artistic. Everything else is illusion that crumbles before the onslaught of time. If you die having prayed to no god, any god, one expressed above an altar or one painted with a brush, then you risk wasting the soul you were given. Repent! Repent!

The very first book Martel sent, The Death of Ivan Ilych, netted a perfunctory response from a prime ministerial assistant, but since then, nothing. But no matter — Martel’s charming introductory essays may be falling on deaf ears at 24 Sussex, but I’m sure they’re being savoured by lovers of literature worldwide. You should check a few out…

Martel has vowed to send Harper a book every two weeks for as long as he’s prime minister. For Martel’s sake — and ours — let’s hope that’s not much longer.

Photo credit: Denis Sinyakov/AFP/Getty Images

There Will Be Sex; or, How Not to Write a Title

One thing’s clear 125 pages into Upton Sinclair’s novel of the California oil boom of the early 1900s: both it and the 2007 film version are atrociously titled.

sinclair.jpegSinclair called his work Oil!, complete with the perky exclamation point, which conjures up the idea of a broadway musical featuring singing toolpushers and dancing roughnecks.

Paul Thomas Anderson, in his screen adaptation of the novel, renamed it There Will Be Blood. If you overlook the adolescent portentousness, as well as the fact it serves as an annoying spoiler, you still get an undeniable suggestion of either horror or gang warfare. When I saw the gothic font promoting the film I thought – “Transylvania.”

twbb.jpegIt’s a shame – I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed a book quite as much, and the film, by all accounts, is excellent – it’s in the running for a Best Picture Oscar.

Perhaps Sinclair (or his publishers) can be forgiven for reflecting some of the conventions of his day, and who knows? In 1926 maybe a one-word noun — emphatically punctuated — was even avant garde.

There Will be Blood, by comparison, bears the sticky fingerprints of Hollywood marketing winkies. You can almost hear the conversation:

“OK. Audiences aren’t going to be much drawn to a detailed historical account of an old-time oil boom. And they especially aren’t interested in any of the moral implications inherent in big concepts like capitalism or class structure or religion.”

“You got that right. Any car chases in this flick?”

“Nope.”

“Any sex?”

“Not really.”

“Any violence?”

“Well, a few people do get hurt.”

“How hurt?”

“Let’s just say, there will be blood.”

Alas, if only it were that easy.

Coming up with a good title may be one of the most overlooked and difficult elements of the fiction-writing process. In his book The Art of Fiction, David Lodge observes: “The title of a novel is part of the text — the first part of it, in fact, that we encounter — and therefore has considerable power to attract and condition the reader’s attention.” It must serve several purposes — descriptor, teaser, emblem.

David Madden, in Revising Fiction, quotes Walker Percy: “A good title should be like a metaphor: It should intrigue without being too baffling or too obvious.” Madden continues: “Titles have a runic, iconic, talismanic, touchstone, charged-image effect.”

There Will Be Blood, however, seems to me less iconic charged-image, and more crass, cynical attention-grabber. Top of mind for the title creators, in fact, may have been the notion, There Will Be Profits.

Looking for the great 21st-century Pakistani novel …

I wanted very much to like very much the novel Broken Verses,whose author, Kamila Shamsie, has received high praise.

brokenverses.jpgAfter the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister, I began to wonder about the country’s literature and why I could name several writers from India but not a single novelist from Pakistan. That led me to an excellent piece in The Guardian by Shamsie, which made me feel not quite so poorly read, and that, in turn, persuaded me to rectify this particular deficiency with one of her books.

But alas, we were two ill-suited ballroom dancers who were out of sync and occasionally on one another’s feet.

For my part, I’ll admit that I brought my own clumsy expectations to the reading enterprise and sometimes found myself annoyed by what the novel wasn’t doing. ‘Give me more Pakistan — more local flavour and context and political insight,’ I kept thinking. But criticizing a novel for what it’s not is hardly fair.

For her part, Shamsie was sometimes distant and distracted in the writing. The story centres on a young woman’s remembered experience of her charismatic mother’s love affair with an equally charismatic poet. The mother, Samina, is a political leader and something of a firebrand; her relationship with the poet is played out during a time of great turbulence in the country.

Sounds pretty good, yes? And oddly resonant with current events. I would certainly be interested in a novel about these two lovers. But it’s not their story. At least I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s Aasmani’s, the narrating daughter who attempts to find meaning in those times and solve the mystery of the mother and poet’s disappearance — which, it turns out, is only a mystery to the narrator. (I won’t spoil the ending, but the overall effect is a bit like reading a detective novel where not only is the bad guy never caught, it turns out there may not even have been a murder in the first place.)

Although the remembered action of the past is often dramatized, it seems too far removed and I feel like the first-person narrator is keeping me at a distance. Maybe this is a deliberate strategy — the two lovers would probably dominate the novel entirely if they were made any more immediate, and as I’ve said, Shamsie’s story is about the daughter.

Lastly, Broken Verses is many time zones away from Chick Lit (or at least what I understand to be Chick Lit) but I do have a nagging suspicion that women will cotton to it more than men. Where women might see a certain emotional richness in the struggles of the narrator, men would likely see a surfeit of self-absorbed hand-wringing.

You say ‘tomato’…I say ‘tomato’….

A book is rarely all bad, of course, and Broken Verses has many things to recommend it. The narrator is sharp-witted and engaging, and, despite my grousing, the book does open a window on Pakistan. I will certainly consider reading whatever Shamsie offers next….