Thursday, January 17, 2019
Saturday, January 12, 2019
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Three days later I emerged from Zusak's color-laden pages, bathed in tears and with a heart swollen to the size of a hearse. I can think of few other novels that have ever affected me in quite an intense and emotional manner.
But I'll stop there and back up, because I think some context for a review is in order.
I recently selected The Book Thief as the October reading for my fantasy book group. To begin with, this novel has very little fantasy about it, but I'll be damned if that was going to stop me.
It is narrated by a comical, lovable, anthopomorphic Death. So it's fantasy. I won't be naysayed on this. It's also great book for discussion, and we have an eclectic group of readers in my group who can bring some interesting perspectives on both the historical and literary viewpoints of the novel.
Also - for those who live beneath a rock like I do - there's a movie coming out. What better time to get others to pick up the book first? A movie changes the perception of a book (for better or worse) forever. I wanted a second reading without a changed perception, or at least not one beyond the change in myself over the intervening years.
So, The Book Thief, take two.
I found I hadn't remembered the details precisely, but my second experience with the book was every bit as moving as it had been the first time. I must admit, Death is a bit overweening at first. He inserts himself too powerfully - and at times too flippantly - into the narrative. But that fades, and the story comes into focus.
The first and greatest of the novel's many assets is the characters. Liesel leaps off the page - an orphaned girl in Nazi Germany, thrown in with poor foster parents. Her foster mother is frightening, cantankerous, and foul-mouthed. Hans Hubermann, her foster father, takes shape slowly, and before you realize it you are every bit as enamored with him as Liesel. Rudy Steiner, the neighbor boy with the "lemon-colored hair", whose greatest desire is a kiss from Liesel, and whose heart is larger than Himmel Street itself. Max Vandenberg, the Mein Kampf-toting Jewish refugee with hair like feathers and a gift for handmade stories. Even Rosa Hubermann herself, rough-tongued and fierce, finds a way into the reader's heart.
There's little real suspense. Death gives you the penultimate scenes right up front. This is how it will happen, he says (there was some discussion in our group over Death's actual gender, but I refer to Death as he only for convenience's sake). Surprisingly, that doesn't make it any less affecting to the reader.
The Book Thief reminds me in many respects of a landscape or urban photograph in sepia tones - browns, ochres, grays, khakis - with a few punches of vibrant color made all the brighter by the contrast to the surrounding landscape. This is true of the visuals in general, but to a larger degree of the personalities and souls of those those Himmel Street denizens that inhabit the Nazi landscape of aggression and hate.
This is a novel of one of the darkest periods in human history. It sets itself in the center of that poison, spreading outward across Europe like a plague, and yet it balances that blackness perfectly. There is beauty and horror in almost equal parts, and the horror only increases the poignancy of the beauty.
Zusak's writing - his imagery and metaphors - encompasses this balance beautifully.
"The last time I saw her was red. The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring. In some places, it was burned. There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness."
"When he turned on the light in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster father's eyes. There were made of kindness, and silver. Like soft silver, melting. Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot."
His writing can also deliver a quick, debilitating punch to the gut:
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the color of Jews."
I almost don't know how to wrap up my thoughts on this novel into a neat package. It encapsulates mankind - "pity this busy monster..." - and it brings into focus the power of words. Words incited the madness that was Nazi Germany. It was Mein Kampf and "heil Hitler" and shouted oratory and Joseph Goebbel's poisonous propaganda. It is also words - stolen words, Max's words, Hans' words, even the book thief's own - that carry Liesel through. They are powerful, and carry within them the seeds of both our destruction and our hope.
This book is painful, rich, impactful, and incredibly beautiful. I cant' recommend it highly enough. It is the type of novel that can change a reader's perspective on life afterwards. The novels that can claim that are few and far between. I can only hope the movie does justice to the book. Geoffrey Rush will play the role of Hans Hubermann, and for small kindnesses such as that we can be thankful.
I'll finish up with the words of Death, as they seem so fitting:
Come with me and I'll tell you a story.
I'll show you something.
Friday, July 13, 2012
Prolific as he was, Dunsany wrote few actual novels. He was a master of the short form and wrote a number of plays, as well as poetry, essays, a travelogue of Ireland, and several autobiographical collections. Dunsany remains most well-known for his short stories, many of which – thanks to Del Rey & Wildside Press & a plethora of anthologies – remain in print.
The King of Elfland’s Daughter is his best-known novel. It was reprinted in 1969 by Ballantine Books as part of their Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and again in the late 1990’s by Del Rey and Gollancz. I have the most recent Del Rey version, sporting a lovely Pre-Raphaelite cover depicting La Belle Dame Sans Merci and an introduction by Neil Gaiman.
“…trust the book,” Gaiman says. “Trust the poetry and the strangeness, and the magic of the ink, and drink it slowly.”
Gaiman is right. Here be poetry and strangeness and magic. Dunsany’s language, so wonderfully poetic in his short stories, can quickly overwhelm the reader if it’s swallowed whole. Sentences can last a page. Paragraphs can last two. Drink slowly, indeed.
The lushness of the prose is an end unto itself. It distills the beauty and magic of Dunsany’s “Elfland” into human language without diluting its wonder with the dull light of the everyday.
- And so it became a magical sword. And little magic there is in English woods, from the time of anemones to the falling of leaves, that was not in the sword. And little magic there is in southern downs, that only sheep roam over and quiet shepherds, that the sword had not too. And there was scent of thyme in it and sight of lilac, and a chorus of birds that sings before dawn in April, and the deep proud splendour of rhododendrons, and the litheness and laughter of streams, and miles and miles of may. (6-7)
That is just a small sample of it, like a tangle of rose bushes through which the reader must press forward, receiving a prick or two, snagging one's clothing. But smelling the flowers too. And feasting eyes on the blossoms.
The brief (and terribly simplified) overview is this: Alveric, the King’s son, travels beyond the twilight border of the mundane world into Elfland, bringing back the King of Elfland’s daughter as his bride. They have a child, Orion. Lirazel, his innocent bride, is ill-suited to her new role as mother and wife. She returns home. Alveric tries to follow her, but the way to Elfland is no longer open to him. “This is no country for old men,” as Dunsany’s friend W.B. Yeats would write two years later.
There are two distinct problems with the novel, and they are intertwined. Problem A is the plot. Or, I should say, the lack of one.
Problem B is the glacial pacing, which is partially due to Dunsany’s rich writing style (which I do not find fault with and thoroughly enjoyed), but mostly due to Problem A.
Let me clarify. I am not a reader that requires continual action, or a linear plot, or even complete resolution of a tale. Slow pacing in itself is not necessarily a problem, if a book has other redeeming qualities, as this one obviously does.
The problem is a lack of direction. Main characters – specifically Alveric – disappear for long portions of the narrative, wandering aimlessly in quest of faerie. There is one short chapter, “Lurulu Watches The Restlessness of Earth” where nothing happens. A character sits in the pigeon loft and watches things going about their course. For seven pages. We’re not even talking about a main character here.
What the novel felt like to me was a short story drawn out to novel length. Dunsany’s short stories are often dressed in finery and elegant language, but they are rarely lacking in substance. The King of Elfland’s Daughter seems to be exactly that. Mostly frosting, with only a little cake beneath.
This has often been my experience with pre-Tolkien fantasy novels. George MacDonald’s Phantastes, for example. Or E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. They lose themselves in a swamp of language and imagery that drowns the story.
Many post-Tolkien novels, on the other hand, exhibit an opposing problem, where subtlety and elegance and nuance are discarded at the expense of plot, often to the detriment of the story.
Despite its obvious flaws, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is well worth reading, especially for those interested in the roots of the fantasy genre, and those who enjoy prose edging toward poetry. Many authors have written of Elfland. Dunsany is one of the few to have obviously visited. His words on Elfland, and on magic, ring true.
I’ll leave you with a little sample cup of Dunsany’s “rich, red wine” (as Gaiman so aptly calls it). It has aged well. Whether or not to buy the bottle is up to you.
- And as the hunt went on, the daylight faded away, till the sky was all prepared for the coming of stars. And one or two stars appeared, and a mist came up from streams and spread all white over fields, till they could not have seen the unicorn if he had been close before them. The very trees seemed sleeping. They passed by little houses, lonely, sheltered by elms; shut off by high hedges of yew from those that roamed the fields; houses that Orion had never seen or known till the chance course of this unicorn brought him suddenly past their doors. Dogs barked as they passed, and continued barking long, for that magical scent on the air and the rush and the voice of the pack told them something strange was afoot; and at first they barked because they would have shared in what was afoot, and afterward to warn their masters about the strangeness. They barked long through the evening. (127)
Monday, July 9, 2012
I have quite a few books queued up for review, awaiting my pleasure. Too many, in fact. I tend to read books at a quicker pace than I review them. But I’m thinking that perhaps the best way to ensure certain books get reviewed is to lay them out on a schedule, hence ensuring I get them written and posted in a timely manner.
So, here’s the next few weeks’ schedule:
- Friday, July 13th - The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany
- Wednesday, July 18th - The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
- Thursday, July 26th - Solstice Wood by Patricia McKillip
That works out to one per week for the next three weeks. The books have already been read. That shouldn’t be too strenuous. I hope.
In writing news, my short story “Trail of Stones” will appear in the premier issue of The Golden Key this fall. Head on over to their site. It’s beautifully designed, and the blog is regularly updated with interesting posts. Plus, they're open for submissions until July 31st, so get your stories in.
That, officially, leaves only one story from 2011 without a home. It is still out, wandering the fine spec magazines. And, since I’ve only written one short story in 2012 (really, just one), that means I have only two lonely stories currently making submission rounds. I kinda miss the constant anticipation of replies in my inbox. I may have to gear myself up for a few new stories.
The novel, on the other hand, has been moving along nicely of late. Chapter 19 is nearly complete, putting the manuscript at around 62k words. There’s a light somewhere far down this tunnel. I can see it.
Unless it’s a train.
Friday, June 15, 2012
Add Caitlín R. Kiernan to the group listed above. The Drowning Girl is fantastic – a gorgeous, fractured tapestry of a novel.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
India Morgan Phelps – Imp to her friends – is schizophrenic. Her grandmother was schizophrenic. Her mother was schizophrenic. Both committed suicide.
If you think this sounds like a grim opening to a novel, it is, but much less so than you might think. Imp’s charisma, her sharply-drawn personality, shine through on nearly every page. Imp narrates her story through flashbacks, journal entries, analogies. These snarl into a tangle of contradictions, odd coincidences, and broken timelines that Imp can’t quite reconcile.
She knows, rationally, they can’t all be true. But she believes in them – in each of them – wholeheartedly. To quote the Radiohead song - "There There" - that Ms. Kiernan cites as an inspiration: Just cos you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.
Imp has obsessions. Hauntings, she calls them.
One is a painting she sees at a local exhibit when she’s eleven. It’s called The Drowning Girl by Phillip George Saltonstall, and features a girl walking into a river or pool, and peering back over her shoulder at a dark, eerily dark, patch of wood. It isn’t just the painting, of course, that obsesses her. The reader comes to understand that Imp has a long-standing obsession with mermaids and fairy-tales, and that The Drowning Girl merely crystallizes that obsession, becomes a focal point.
The second is another painting, seen years later at another exhibition. It is called Fecunda ratis, and features a blurred Impressionistic rendering of a young girl in a red tunic, “surrounded by a circle of dark, hulking forms – the wolves – and the wolves, in turn, are sitting within an outer circle of standing stones, a looming megalithic ring.” This, of course, represents a form of “Little Red Riding Hood”, a fairy tale Imp calls her “least favorite”.
The two paintings, and the two fairy-tales, become the nexus around which the story revolves. Nightmare and dream. The two tales wrestle over Imp’s mind, ply each other for dominance. They become her stories.
- A dark country road in Eastern Connecticut. Another dark road beside a river in Massachusetts. A woman who called herself Eva Canning, who might have been a ghost, or a wolf, or maybe a mermaid, or possibly, most likely, nothing that will ever have a name.
The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time as Imp tries to reconstruct her thoughts and find the truth of her story. She realizes that fact and truth are not synonymous. Imp says in the opening chapter that she will try to tell the story as she remembers it. “Which is not to say every word will be factual. Only that every word will be true. Or as true as I can manage.”
The story comes in broken chunks and flashbacks interspersed with her current life and in little pieces of fiction that she has written.
The story is strewn with references to everyone from Charles Perrault to Dante Alighieri. Kiernan peppers the story with odd facts (Imp collects odd facts like shells on the beach), and even fictional references like the painting of “The Drowning Girl” felt real enough that I needed to search to ensure it didn’t really exist. This gives the novel a feel of authenticity, a believability that never, even in its strangest moments, dissipates.
Capturing the skittering thoughts and images of Imp’s mind must have been a daunting task, but Kiernan’s style brings it off beautifully. It varies between extremely lucid and straightforward or surrealistic and dreamlike, dependent upon Imp’s state of mind. It is most powerful in its surrealistic state, especially Chapter 7, which centers around that number and reads like a strange opium dream.
- This is my ghost story of the wolf who cried girl. The murdered wolf ghost who roamed centuries after a musket blast, without other wolves, except other wolf ghosts, for company. And somehow she forgot she ever was a wolf, deprived of others of her kind to provide perspective. She forgot.
The story doesn’t tie up neatly into a little bow. It remains fractured, just as its narrator remains fractured. Imp can control her illness through medication. But there’s no cure, just as you sense there’s no easy solution to her story. What happened, on a factual basis, is far less important that what is true. Imp realizes this central tenet to storytelling. It is why fiction is so much more important than non-fiction. There are truths contained therein that will never be found in a dry collection of facts.
I’m reminded of the lines from Yann Martel’s brilliant Life of Pi:
- “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”.
The Drowning Girl is certainly a better story with the animals. And it’s one of the finer books I’ve read this year.
Monday, May 14, 2012
So, without further ado, I would like to point out that my flash story, "The Deep", has been published in the May edition of Flash Fiction Online.
At a mere 1000 words, you've got time. Five minutes. Maybe seven. Max. Click on over. Have a gander. Leave a comment if you're so inclined. You know you want to.
You've scrolled too far. There's nothing down here. The link is up above. The blue word clicky-thing.
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
So, with that in mind: “Hello, my name is Adam, and I am a shameless, weak, feeble-willed, indolent procrastinator.” Whew! At least that’s out in the open. I hate speaking in front of people.
I’m hoping this works in two ways:
- A.) To actually set some concrete writing goals for the month.
B.) To let other people know about those goals.
Those necessarily have to work together. I set myself goals all the time, and often fail to reach them. But whose problem is that? Mine. Because no one else knows about them. And though I feel bad about not reaching personal goals – very guilty, in fact – it doesn’t always give me the extra motivation I need. So I’m thinking perhaps the fact that other people know about my goals gives me some incentive to meet them. Hey, every little bit helps.
At the very least, it helps to know that I’m not the only easily-distracted, restless, attention-deficient writer on the planet. In fact, I’m beginning to think that’s the most common kind.
My goals for May were thus:
- 1.) Write 1000 words on my WIP on each devoted “writing day”. Minimum of three days per week. (Kind of vague, huh? My writing schedule is at the mercy of my changing work schedule.)
2.) Write a minimum of one blog post per week updating my #writemotivation status and / or containing a book review. (And I have so many reviews just waiting to be written!)
This constitutes my second blog post of the month. So I’m at least meeting that commitment, if only at a minimum level.
The other? Lagging a bit behind so far. I managed about 1,100 words for the week on my WIP novel, and started a new story, on which I’ve completed around 1,750 words. I haven’t a clue where the story is going yet. But it’ll get there eventually. Wherever there is.
For those mathematically-challenged readers, that’s a mere 2,850 words for the first week of May. Thank God I don’t have to make a living at this stuff. Starvation and exposure would have set in a long time back.
I hope all of my fellow #writemotivation writers are plugging along a bit more gainfully. Like my mysteriously meandering new story, we’ll get there eventually.
P.S. - The wonderful image above is from writer/artist Richard Krzemien. Check out his website for more great comics.
Monday, April 30, 2012
May is shaping up to be an exciting month. Three of my short stories will appear in some seriously awesome magazines. I learned yesterday that my story, “Deerslayer”, has been accepted by Nine Magazine, and will appear in their second issue to be released in late May. (You can get the nine fantastic stories in Issue One now for $5. It’s totally worth it.)
This is in addition to “Flatland” - which is scheduled to appear in the May issue of Jabberwocky - and “The Deep”, which will appear in the May issue of Flash Fiction Online. “The Deep” is my first (and thus far only) professional-paying sale.
Needless to say, I’m chuffed to see the words I’ve sweated and bled over (not literally…perhaps) get into the hands of readers. I’ll put a note up here when each of the stories are available.
Submitting short fiction is an exciting, excruciating, time-consuming, obsessive process. If I’d tallied the number of times I checked my email for replies, I’d have covered the desk, walls, and possibly the carpet with faint pencil lines. The road from initial idea to rough story to finished story to rejection to acceptance to actual, honest-to-god publication is potholed, meandering, and stretches way, way back into the heat-blurred distance.
It has been an educational, and often frustrating, experience. But it has also been an awful lot of fun.
In secondary news, I completed the fifteenth chapter of my novel WIP this past week, which means I've struggled my way very close to the halfway point (per my outline, which is rather vague and liable to morph into different shapes altogether). Either way, it’s a milestone, and one I’m satisfied with. Though I’m struck with a faint disquiet that not enough is happening at this point in the book. Ah well, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed in revisions.