Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I was excited to pick up this novel because it got such exquisite reviews, but I'm afraid I can't recognize what all the fuss was about. The novel is set in foot-binding era China and is exceedingly well researched. The best bits were the factual ones; I really felt the horror of foot-binding in a way I never really had before. But the research completely overshadows the characters and the plot. Right now I'm reading Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (yes, I'm rather behind the rest of the reading public on this one) and where Golden has created full characters who are interesting in their own right, and placed them in historical, carefully researched context, See pretty much gave the research without creating the characters. The novel reads oddly like a summary. Where Golden writes in scene probably 85 percent of the time, See is in scene about 15 percent of the time, and the difference is huge. I think See might have done better to write a nonfiction book on her subject. But if what you want to write is a historical novel, well, best to put the novel elements first and the historical ones second.

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

I'm starting to feel the hardest bit of a novel to pull off is the middle. The easiest is the beginning, all new ideas and potential, and then the end is often carried by style and language and emotion, but the middle... One of my friends once took me on a tour of Seattle, and at one part of town, she said, "This is wear the s--t gets done." Well, that's a pretty good description of the middle of a novel, too. Your characters and your plot both have to grow in complexity and interest, and you have to maintain your voice, all without losing whatever pulled the reader in in the first place. It's hard. And I loved the beginning of Mantel's novel Beyond Black, and I liked the end, but in the middle I fizzled. In the middle, the language seemed to flatten out and not much actually happened. And I suppose the danger of a beginning so good is your middle needs to be even better.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I'm reading the novel Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel.

So far, it is funny:

"Alison was a woman who seemed to fill a room, even when she wasn't in it"

(it seemed funnier in context)

and disturbing:

"Mrs. Etchells (who taught her the psychic trade) had always told her, there are some spirits, Alison, who you already know from way back, and you just have to put names to the faces. There are some spirits that are spiteful and will do you a bad turn. There are others that are bloody buggering bastards, excuse my French, who will suck the marrow out your bones. Yes, Mrs. E, she'd said, but how will I know which are which? And Mrs. Etchells had said, God help you girl. But God having business elsewhere, I don't expect he will."


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright's novels are always extra-good at creating a vision of the world. I tend to read a lot of straightforward realism that create believable portraits of lives/places/times I haven't experienced. Certainly all of the civil war ficiton I've read has been in that vein. But in this novel, Wright (who up until now has written mostly Vietnam-related fiction) takes the events/feelings of the time and through precise word choice and some very peculiar characters (who all engage in sharp, stage-y dialogue) creates a vision that isn't exactly realistic but much more strange and disarming and therefore original. And he really does it all through style and tone. The events are not especially strange; it's the way that they're told.

An example: "One early evening in the late spring of Liberty's eleventh year, swallows playing tag over the peaks of the house, the limpid air marshaling objects near and far in sharply defined equidistance, cricket orchestra warming up in the dank pit under the front porch, Uncle Potter, who hadn't been seen by family, friend or local constabulary in more than a year and whose last known whereabouts involved a lengthy stroll down the Drummond Pike, a left at the North Fork and on about sixty miles past the border of Nowhere, came thundering into the dining parlor, per custom, unexpected, unannounced and in an inveterate state of personal and mental dishabille at the precise moment Aunt Aroline, with the fussy ceremony of an anxious chef, was depositing upon the loaded table a great pewter dish out of which rose a steaming citadel of beef and bone set amid a delightful enceinte of boiled "sauce"--potatoes, onions, beets and carrots chopped and sliced and compulsively aligned in an alternating pattern emphasizing their natural chromatic harmony.
'As usual, Potter.' Roxana smiled. 'I must applaud your theatrical sense of timing.'"