Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ken Follett // PILLARS OF THE EARTH

This is the longest book I've ever read. It sat on my desk for three months because I was afraid to open the cover. There's no jacket copy on the back-only a photo of Ken. I'm thinking because the book is so massive, there's not enough space for the copy. But. I once I started reading, I didn't want this book to end.

What is my review? Stop what you're doing. Forget that Oprah picked this book. Click out of Book Book and go directly to Amazon. Do not stop to chat along the way.


There. Do you have your copy?


You will find yourself transported to England in the 1100s. You will meet an unforgettable cast of characters whose lives are entwined by the building of a cathedral in Kingsbridge.


From Ken Follett's site: In a time of civil war, famine and religious strife, there rises a magnificent Cathedral in Kingsbridge. Against this backdrop, lives entwine: Tom, the master builder, Aliena, the noblewoman, Philip, the prior of Kingsbridge, Jack, the artist in stone and Ellen, the woman from the forest who casts a curse. At once, this is a sensuous and enduring love story and an epic that shines with the fierce spirit of a passionate age.


My middle-grade manuscript is set in Belgium in the 1500s. Many of the details of daily life popped off the page because of my research into daily life during the Medieval period. Ken Follett's attention to detail makes you feel as if you are part of this life, almost a thousand years ago. But the detail is not overdone. It's woven seamlessly into the plot. All of the characters are so real, I feel like I know them. And, and, and.....it's not a dark story. There are many trials and tribulations, and bad things happen, but always you're left with a sense of hope. My kind of book.


I cannot wait to read World Without End. It's not a sequel in the truest sense of the word, but it does follow from Pillars.





Tuesday, May 20, 2008

tracy chevalier/GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING

this is the first book i've read by chevalier
and i truly enjoyed it. she has a clear quiet
prose which is my favorite to read. unlike
some historicals which get burdened down
by description to try and set the era, the
author is able to create the period with her
simple storytelling.

set in 17th century holland, the story takes
place in the city of delft.
griet is forced to become the maid of the
painter vemeer's large family after her father
loses his eyesight in a work accident. she
is only allowed to return home on sundays,
and enters the papist corner of the city for
the first time, where vemeer and his
ever-expanding family lives.

his wife catherina immediately takes a
dislike to griet, and one daughter decides
to make her life difficult by playing mean
pranks. griet finds that she is drawn to her
master, vermeer, and he secretly asks her
to help him grind the vivid colors he uses
to paint his masterpieces.

her life is complicated by interest shown
by pieter, the son of a butcher at the market.
while vermeer's biggest patron, van ruijven
makes overt passes at her. van ruijven finally
convinces vermeer to paint griet, and she
finds that she will do anything to remain
close to her master, whom has always intrigued,
and whom she now desires.

the painting culminates in her dismissal
as a maid when vermeer's very pregnant
wife sees the intimate portrait her husband
has painted of griet. the nail in the coffin
is the fact that griet is wearing her mistress'
pearl earrings--which sends the woman into
a jealous rage.

throughout, chevalier does a fine job of
setting tone and voice for her tale. we can
understand the desire griet feels for her
master, and his for her, without it ever
becoming sexual. the only thing that threw
me was chevalier's overuse of similes and
metaphors in the first few pages of the novel.
(tho all were done well, they were so many
i noticed as a writer.)

afterward, her writing only drew me into
the story, and i read with pleasure until
the very end. i definitely recommend this
novel. as an aside, i had to learn more
of vermeer and this painting after reading
the story--which shows you how much
i was intrigued. the painting is called the
dutch mona lisa. in truth, i find this painting
much more compelling.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pamela Morsi/DOING GOOD

Jane Lofton is a society wife, focused on liposuction and plastic surgery and ignoring her husband's affairs and her teenage daughter's alienation. Out for a drive, Jane is nearly hit by a truck and is trapped in her burning car. Struggling to get out, she promises she will "do good" if her life is saved. An elderly man from the nearby nursing home saves her, and Jane attempts to determine exactly what "doing good" means.

The pace of this book lurches a bit, with occasional bogging down into excessive detail. I particularly became tired of the daughter in short order; this may have been the point but I didn't find her a sympathetic character with her constant complaints about her terrible life (which didn't sound so bad). Jane's journey to being less self-absorbed generally worked well although for someone so status-conscious she was certainly able to let go of those concerns quickly.

My biggest problem was the elderly rescuer. Chester was a great character and I loved reading about him, but I just couldn't buy that he'd saved her given his physical condition. I mostly managed to put that aside, and I did enjoy this book more than most of my recent reads, but every so often I'd think, "There's no way he could have pulled her from the car" and it popped me out of the story.

Still, when I WAS able to put that aside, the book was a light but enjoyable read, with some interesting (and non-preachy) discussion about what it really means to be a good person.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Lisa See/SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN


In a remote village in Hunan, a seven-year-old Yao girl named Lily is told by the fortune teller who comes to pick an auspicious day for her footbinding that her destiny is special. Suddenly, her life is on a new and exciting course toward a very advantageous marriage out of the poverty of her home village. More interestingly, Lily is eligible for another contract of a different kind--she can become a laotong, or "old same," with another girl of exactly her age in another village. If she agrees, Lily will sign a binding agreement to be best friends with this girl, Snow Flower, for the rest of her life. Snow Flower, who is from an enobled family of an imperial scholar, is refined and well-bred in a way Lily is not, but the girls forge a deep and faithful friendship that will change their lives.

I resisted reading this book for several years for two reasons--1) the popularity (I figured it must be terribly generic), and 2) the title (I thought it was a little silly). I only changed my mind because I read PEONY IN LOVE upon Cyn's recommendation a few months ago, and I really enjoyed See's writing. I'm so glad I read SNOW FLOWER. I literally found it very difficult to put down and ended up locking myself in my room the entire first nice day of the year in order to see what happened.

This book is masterful in its research into the lost custom of nu shu (women's writing), a remote culture (the Yao of Hunan province), and the less glamorous side of the Taiping Rebellion (all the villagers who were displaced by it). It is also a heartfelt and universal tribute to friendship, the potential it has to save lives, and the power it has to ruin them. A short and very emotionally charged novel--I think I started crying in Chapter 2.

All women should read this book, particularly if you've ever fallen out with a friend. It's a reminder of what is most important and that we should always seek redemption.

Paulo Coelho/THE ALCHEMIST

i picked this book up on a lark as
part of a buy two get one free deal
at the local barnes and noble. i had
certainly heard of the book before, but
only the title rung a bell with me.
it was published here here in 1998
while i was in grad school.
i never read for pleasure while in uni--
it was one thing i missed a lot despite
the fact that i love being a student.

santiago decides not to follow what
his family wishes for him, to become a
priest, but instead follow his desire
to travel and see more of the world by
becoming a sheepherder. a recurrent dream
of treasures at the egyptian pyramids
prompts the boy to abandon his sheep
to pursue his Personal Legend.

the Personal Legend, as the boy is
told by various wise men he encounters,
is what every person is born to achieve.
it is his destiny in this life which will
make him truly happy. but as humans
full of foibles as we are, we learn
to suppress our Personal Legend as
we grow older. We let fear of failure, fear
of success even, and the small details of
surviving life get in the way.

coelho's prose is straightforward,
clean and simple. prose that i always
admire in a writer. it is the reason i love
ursula le guin's fantasy books so much--
for her simple prose and storytelling.
coelho tells a uncomplicated tale which
every person reading can understand and
relate to--the relinquishing of our dreams--
what would truly make us happy. and the
courage it takes to never give up.

my issue with the story is that it seemed
to get didactic at times. yes, it is indeed
a fable, but in certain points in the story,
the message got heavy-handed for me.
it certainly is a fine line. but overall, i did
enjoy the book. i didn't like it as much as
i wanted to. i was really drawn in at the
beginning, taken by the hand. it reminded me
of many fantasy stories i loved.

it was toward the middle, when i felt
the author's message a little too strongly,
but he led me back again with good
storytelling. i can see why so many people
would have loved this book. it's an inspiring,
thought-provoking tale written in beautiful
prose by coelho.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Susan Kay Law/THE PAPER MARRIAGE

I should preface this by saying I'm not generally a romance reader. I went for this book because the concept interested me, but unfortunately the concept was overshadowed by what for me was unrealistic character development.

The main character, Ann, is married to John, who has been in a coma for nearly 12 years after a car accident. Ann visits John daily and is essentially frozen in time. John was her first boyfriend and lover, and she's more or less resigned herself to never having another.

Tom, a former baseball star, moves in next door, and his sixteen year old daughter moves in for the summer. She and Ann become friends, and Ann and Tom naturally become more.

And it was right there that the book lost me. I'd really hoped for more of an exploration of how such a marriage works, the moral issues and ethical issues of a spouse who's not expected to wake up, and how you live your life like that. There was a very little bit of this, but not what I'd hoped for. Ann is shocked that people are suggesting she should date again; I was only shocked it took them twelve years to get to that point, and also not convinced it would have taken that long.

Being a romance, Ann and Tom naturally get together. To my mind, though, Ann's personality changed completely in the space of a few pages, suddenly flirtatious and suggestive where literally the night before she'd been cool and distant. Other characters had similar issues; the only one who consistently felt real to me was Tom's daughter.

I understand from romance readers that part of the attraction of the genre is seeing two people, who from initial appearances should not be able to make a relationship work, getting to the point where they CAN make one work. The way Ann seemed to change overnight took that out of the book, and without it I didn't find it as strong a book as it could have been.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Lloyd Jones/MISTER PIP

Lloyd Jones is a New Zealander who has been writing for over 20 years. This is his sixth novel, but the first to be widely published overseas - it won the Commonweath Writers' Prize and made the Man Booker shortlist last year.

It is a tale of childhood on the South Pacific island of Bougainville, during its struggle for independence from Papua New Guinea in the early 1990s. It is the story of Matilda, a spirited young girl who lives in a tiny village beside the beach. When the government imposes a strict blockade on the island and sends in troops and helicopters to crush the rebellion, life becomes hard for the villagers. All the foreigners quit the island, leaving them without a teacher, a pastor, a doctor. And they live in mounting dread of the atrocities they hear reported (committed by both sides in the civil war - the situation is depressingly similar to the Sierra Leone conflict described in Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone, which I read a few months ago) reaching their homes.

Only one white man remains, the skinny, elderly Mr Watts. He is married to a local woman, but they are both somewhat eccentric and reclusive, and are viewed as objects of curiosity and derision. However, in these changed circumstances Mr Watts volunteers himself as a teacher in the village school, and, although his knowledge is limited, he proves to be a kindly and creative mentor, and is soon idolised by Matilda and her classmates. His 'secret weapon' is a copy of Great Expectations, with which he holds the children spellbound, reading them one chapter each day. Later, when the book is lost, he sets the children the task of 'retrieving' it by recording their own versions of the parts of the story they remember and like best.

For the uneducated islanders, the book is quite unknown, its power over their children unfathomable. They are apt to conflate "Mr Dickens" the author, and later Pip the protagonist, with the teacher, Mr Watts - a confusion of identities with which he happily plays along, though ultimately with very unfortunate consequences. The second element of the central tragedy towards which the story inexorably moves is Matilda's mother, who comes into bitter conflict with Mr Watts: she resents the affection he inspires in her daughter and, as a fiercely religious woman, she distrusts Mr Watts's atheism and what she perceives as a lack of moral rigour in the story of Great Expectations. With the two people she most loves and admires set in opposition to each other (her father has been absent for several years, working at a copper mine in Australia, so Mr Watts is perhaps partly filling the paternal role in her life), young Matilda faces a terrible dilemma.

This is a charming tale, a wonderful celebration of the fascination of reading (and writing) and of the liberating power of the imagination. It is also a meditation on the nature of identity, as Great Expectations' themes of orphanhood, migration, redemption, and self-reinvention provide rich parallels with the strange life story of Mr Watts, the only white man on a black island, and later with Matilda herself, who becomes an exile from her home.

It is a very short novel, easy to read and movingly told. However, I do have just a few quibbles with it. I found the section where Watts spends several evenings telling the villagers and a group of rebel soldiers a fantastical account of his life story (woven together from Great Expectations itself, and from the various tales that the villagers themselves have told when invited into his classroom as guest speakers) implausible and unsatisfying (though perhaps this is partly deliberate: Matilda herself comments at one point that his tale is degenerating into the sort of incoherent rambling that a nervous Joe Gargery lapses into in her beloved book). I also found the coda - where Matilda visits New Zealand to find Mr Watts's original home, and then moves to London to pursue a career as a Dickens scholar - to be dull, unnecessary, anti-climactic.

My major reservations, though, are about the choice of narrative voice. I don't doubt that Lloyd Jones has done considerable research about Bougainville and has almost certainly visited it. He does evoke the cadences of its people's language and the idiosyncracies of their worldview quite well; indeed, in its best moments, this novel feels like an oral history of island life. However, there are times when he is striving too hard to tease out the symbolism of something, or to render a poetic phrase, moments that seem jarringly out of character even for a grown-up Matilda, much more so for the young teenager who is purportedly telling the story. I think perhaps this is always a problem when narrating a story through the eyes of a child (or anyone with limited powers of perception or expression), that the author will not be able to sustain that voice consistently, will succumb to the temptation occasionally to make observations of a more adult or sophisticated character, perhaps even to include elements of a more detached, 'omniscient' narration. And Jones's attempt to create a narrative point of view quite different from his own experience is here quite exceptionally ambitious, not to say arrogant: a middle-aged white man trying to re-create the perceptions of a young black woman (who is in turn trying to re-create the memories of her traumatized childhood). He is, on the whole, remarkably successful in pulling it off, but nonetheless one cannot help but be at times uncomfortably aware of the layers of artifice involved.

I suppose my qualms about the narrative voice here are not just technical, but moral. It doesn't feel decent to me for an outsider to appropriate such a personal, such a traumatic story about events so recent (you feel that Matilda's story must have been - should have been - based on real events, but there is no mention of this in the credits). I find it difficult to construct any argument to support this view - it's really just a gut feeling, a sense that some events are so terrible that one should be wary of retelling them for purposes of entertainment, that their importance imposes some sort of duty of truthfulness even in fictional accounts of them, and that such truthfulness can only really be achieved by people who lived through those events. Holocaust stories should only be written by those who directly experienced the Holocaust. This could be an interesting point for discussion.

However, if you can dismiss such reservations (and I suppose I did while I was reading it; it's only subsequently that they've been troubling me again), I can highly recommend this book for the quality of its writing and the charm of its central theme.