Posts Tagged 'Fiction'

Reading the right road, traveling the right book

By themselves, reading and traveling are two of the greatest pleasures in life; combined, the effect can be, well, transporting.

We all have our favourite passages. I once spent an idyllic afternoon on the train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, amiably accompanied by Henning Mankell, the great Swedish mystery writer.

Pierre Berton and his fine book Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, kept me company while I toured Alaska. Charles Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities illuminated my vacationing footsteps to London and Paris, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea struck the perfect note for an afternoon at the beach in Cuba. 

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

Books can do what no tour guide can – by providing resonating detail and bringing different times, places and people to life. You can’t look out on the Cape of Good Hope without thinking about its mythical place in the briny literature of sea-faring adventure – that is, as long as you’ve dipped your oar in that particular writing current.

I also take great delight in purchasing books – good, bad or otherwise – in the places in which they are rooted. I’ve picked up A Town Called Alice, by Nevil Shute, in Alice Springs, while cruising through the Australian Outback; I bought Sarum, by Edward Rutherford, in the little gift shop set up near the site of the ancient settlement near Salisbury; and most recently, I risked missing a ferry ride to buy Long Walk to Freedom, by Nelson Mandela, at Robben Island, the former South African prison turned museum.

Maybe I’m alone in this. Maybe for other people it doesn’t matter what sort of reading material they pile into their carry-on, or what sorts of books they cart back home. But such indifference will never work for me. It’s been said there are really only two rules of the open road: make sure you have good shoes on your feet, and keep your bowels open. To those I’d add a third: make sure you’re packing a book that tells you something interesting about the place and its people.

What are your most memorable passages?

Happy trails; happy reading.

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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….

Sticks and stones: name-calling in the name of art

Céline Dion is the Antichrist of the indie sensibility, an overemoting schmaltz-bot who has somehow managed to convert the ethos of Wal-Mart into sine waves and broadcast them, at kidney-rupturingly high volume, directly into our internal soulPods.

85184.jpgDon’t you just love a good rant? The above comes courtesy of Sam Anderson writing in the December 17 New York Magazine. His book review is headlined: “Taster’s Choice: Is disdain for Céline Dion innate or learned? And what’s wrong with liking her music anyway?” The book under consideration is by Carl Wilson, a writer/editor for The Globe & Mail, and called, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste.

I bring it up here because nothing grows quite so robustly in the garden of cultural criticism as debate about low and high, and what the significance is – for individuals and entire civilizations – when one group of people likes something that another group doesn’t.

Defenders of taste and decency will of course argue that a Giuseppe Verdi belongs in Milan’s La Scala, and a Céline Dion in, well, a Las Vegas hotel. The same sort of classifications come up in book discussions all the time. Stephen King is not a serious writer. John Irving is hopelessly middlebrow. Heaven forbid anyone should dip their toes into the cesspools of genre fiction.

In a piece that appears in The Times online, Brian Appleyard considers the stigmatizing effect of being branded a science fiction writer, while tenaciously defending the genre.

In the 1970s, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss were judging a contest for the best science-fiction novel of the year. They were going to give the prize to Grimus, Salman Rushdie’s first novel. At the last minute, however, the publishers withdrew the book from the award. They didn’t want Grimus on the SF shelves. “Had it won,” Aldiss, the wry, 82-year-old godfather of British SF, observes, “he would have been labelled a science-fiction writer, and nobody would have heard of him again.”

Undeterred, Aldiss has just published a new version of A Science Fiction Omnibus, a fat collection of classic stories. In the 1960s, the original was on everybody’s bookshelves, dog-eared and broken-backed. Aldiss says that was SF’s one golden age, when Oxford dons were happy to be seen indulging the genre. Now they wouldn’t be seen dead with a Philip K Dick, a James Blish or a Robert Sheckley. Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, insists her books are not SF, but “speculative fiction” or “adventure romance”. “She’s quite right,” says Aldiss. “She had this idea that a certain amount of opprobrium always hovered around the title science fiction. You might call it double-dealing, but I can quite understand it.”

Labels stick; having one slink along in front of your name (science fiction writer Salman Rushdie) could carry surprising and unwanted meaning. “Literary fiction,” I suppose, is meant to signify something of weight that displays a certain technical and artistic mastery. Trouble is, as Appleyard points out, it often doesn’t. At the same time, writers of so-called genre fiction — like a Stephen King or a PD James — can demonstrate a high level of artistic assurance in handling the serious theme.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard, anyway. I wouldn’t know. I spend all my time reading Proust and Schopenhauer.

Yeah, right.

It’s a bit sad, really. Not quite, “My-Heart-Will-Go-On” sad, but sad nonetheless. Maybe what we really need is a little tolerance. I too “would rather be processed through the digestive tract of an anaconda” than listen to Céline, as one critic puts it in the Anderson piece, but the fact is millions of others would say she’s brought music into their lives.

Is that so bad?

Warts and halos – Why bad guys hog the limelight

Here’s a quick test. What fictional work did the character Clarice Starling appear in? Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

While you’re chewing on that, consider the new research published in the journal Nature that suggests infants 6-10 months old already distinguish — and prefer — helpful as opposed to unhelpful characters. New York Times writer Eric Nagourney gave this story a great lede:

Did that mean Square push that poor Circle down the hill? Yes – and Baby isn’t about to forget it, either.

In a study that suggests that people may begin evaluating one another for trustworthiness even earlier than believed, researchers showed infants a demonstration in which different shapes played the good guy or the bad guy. Then the infants were allowed to choose one to play with.

The good guy won almost every time.

It makes sense that we would be programmed at a deep level to pay attention to who’s naughty and nice – it’s a matter of survival. If creeps and bums populate the environment, then we’d better know whom to run from, and whom to run to.

This may also partly explain why we’re more interested in reading and writing about twisted, mean, bitter, degenerate, weak, vindictive, evil or otherwise deeply flawed characters than we are about the good, humane, strong and decent sorts. The good guys are pretty much unchanging and, although it’s important to have them as allies, we don’t need to keep tabs on them the same way we do the badasses.

So while the name ‘Clarice Starling’ might ring only faint bells, the name ‘Hannibal Lecter’ is likely to make you sit up a little straighter. They were both characters in Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, but the epicurean mass murderer rightly commands our greater attention.

I guess in one sense this is a colossal case of stating the painfully obvious; of course the character and motivations of a psychopathic cannabalistic serial killer are more interesting than those of a hard-working gumshoe, even when she’s played by Jodie Foster.

The really bad guys, thankfully – and despite what television news, detective fiction and manipulative conservative politicians would have you believe – are relatively rare. But our genes do compel us to remain hyper-vigilant to potential sources of danger, just as they have since our days in the crib.

One consequence of that fixation is a dearth of textured portrayals of good characters. Perhaps I’m misquoting Robertson Davies (or misattributing), but I think he remarked that most writers can conjure up one or two convincing bad guys, but very few can do a credible good guy.

Here’s a challenge: name as many interesting, fully developed and compelling good guys (and of course, gals) from the world of fiction that you can. Exclude two-dimensional comic book heroes, detectives, superheroes, obvious tropes, stock characters, Harry Potter, George Bailey, Ned Flanders, Forrest Gump, formulaic Heroic journeyers, and anything ressembling a Hobbit. Try it off the top of your head before you go browsing your bookshelves. Perhaps someone like an Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, or a Wilbur Larch from The Cider House Rules would fit the bill.

I’m betting you’ll struggle as much as I did.

Amuse bouche*: Lorrie Moore

Here is a strong opening from a short story by Lorrie Moore called “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

self-help.jpg11/30. Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you. She takes on love with the whiskery adjustments of a golddigger. She is just a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend. Recall how just last month when you got her from Bob downstairs, after Bob had become suddenly allergic, she leaped into your lap and purred, guttural as a German chanteuse, familiar and furry as mold. And Bob, visibly heartbroken, still in the room, sneezing and giving instructions, hoping for one last cat nuzzle, descended to his hands and knees and jiggled his fingers in the shag. The cat only blinked. For you, however, she smiled, gave a fish-breath peep, and settled.

‘Oh well,’ said Bob, getting up off the floor. ‘Now I’m just a thing of her kittenish past.’

That’s the way with Bob. He’ll say to the cat, ‘You be a good girl now, honey,’ and then just shrug, go back downstairs to his apartment, play jagged creepy jazz, drink wine, stare out at the wintry scalp of the mountain.

There are a couple of things conspiring here to quicken a reader’s interest:

  • A dated, diary-like entry, but with a curious use of the second-person perspective, which comes with all those imperatives — “Understand…,” “Recall….”
  • Strong imagery, such as “Guttural as a German chanteuse,” “familiar and furry as mold…,” “wintry scalp of the mountain”
  • And some well-observed details about cats: “a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend.”

The first sentence also begs the question — Why does the narrator need help, anyway? The diary device promises privileged, inside information and narrows the gap between writer and reader. At the same time, the unique prism of the second-person perspective filters the speaker’s voice into a weird and compelling light.

I haven’t read anything else by Moore, but after reading “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” I plan to.   

* “An amuse-bouche, also called an amuse-gueule, is a tiny bite-sized morsel served before the hors d’œuvre or first course of a meal. These, often accompanied by a proper complementing wine, are served as an excitement of taste buds to both prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.” -Wikipedia