Showing posts with label books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label books. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Study in Micro-Reviewing

I've been batting around a notion for a while that seems rather, well, obvious.  I frequent the library often, and try to read a great variety of works both within "my" genre and outside of it, and yet I find myself in the habit of not sitting down and putting into words what I did (or didn't) take away from it. I have no excuse.  It is important to be able to articulate why I love or loathe a certain book - not just as a writer but as a thoughtful reader.  Besides, it's just good practice.  We opinions, fellow readers!  We need to voice them!

I'm not a literary critic.  In fact, I think a great deal of us cringe at the word.  The one class from which I had to withdraw in college was a Critical Theory class in which the lecturer's unforgiving attitude toward those of an writer's mindset gave me a nasty panic attack.  So... I'm not a critic, just a reader and a writer looking at the story and what it said to me.  I realize it doesn't have to be an article.  It doesn't have to be a polished essay.  It doesn't need to be more than say, 250-300 words.  The length of those pesky query letters... and no doubt easier to write.  Ahem, here goes.

 The first book in this Micro-Review series is The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe.  Published in the spring of 2012, it is the second novel Ms. Howe has presented to the world.  The first was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, an intriguing novel spanning modern-day Harvard back to the Salem witch trials.  I read The House of Velvet and Glass because Deliverance Dane struck such a nice balance between historical fiction, contemporary coastal Massachusetts and a hint of magic woven throughout.  Her characters were genuine and driven to uncover the mysteries presented them.  Her descriptions were vivid - I particularly liked her description of the dilapidated house to which the main character returns and the mushrooms growing at the foot of the stairs.  The novel was warm with hints of good witches, a magic inheritance from mothers to daughters and long-lost diaries, an October story.

The House of Velvet and Glass also takes place in Boston - this time in 1915 after the Titanic disaster.  As Deliverance Dane was a story about witches and magic, Velvet and Glass is about sinking ships, opium dens and crystal balls.  I did not find it to be as "entrancing" as the jacket blurb says.  The main character Sibyl Allston is a spinster at twenty-seven, still suffering from the rejection of a suitor long ago and the deaths of her mother and sister on the Titanic.  Her brother has been expelled from Harvard for cavorting with an actress.  Her father is an old grizzled seafarer with a blue parrot.  Katherine Howe, it must be said is a consummate researcher.  To read Velvet and Glass is to transport yourself into the textures and the trappings of medium parlors, Back Bay mansions and opium smoke.  The surroundings are vivid... but perhaps too vivid because they tend to drown the characters out to types - they're good characters with some but not great depth. 

I couldn't get close to the characters.  Sibyl discovers that using a scrying glass in conjunction with opium use gives her powerful visions; her old flame - a psychologist - tries to protect her from it; her father battles his own addictions for similar reasons.  Sibyl strikes me as being a little too naive, while also being stubborn, which is irritating.  Her brother of course falls in love with a woman of indeterminate class.  Other rich ladies are snobbish.  It's 1915 and Sibyl doesn't know that the laudanum her father takes is an opiate and therefore addictive?  And - no doubt because I've watched Downton Abbey - I saw the story line of the Titanic connecting to the Great War almost immediately.  It was so predictable - although I cannot rule out the idea that this was somehow intentional - and the characters helpless to do much to change their fate... even if they can see the future.  I expected different, more dynamic choices on Sibyl's part.

I wonder if this is an example of Second Novel Syndrome, my term.  Having made a successful debut, the author is now under deadline for the second bestseller - continuing a brand of story.  Perhaps there isn't as much freedom to create and explore in this new novel; publishers and editors want a working outline, a synopsis of a novel that is still in the infant stages.  In order to meet deadline, the author must work to the outline.  I'm not saying this is true of Ms. Howe's experience, as I'm not in a position to ask her, but it is the sense I gather: to produce something fresh and in the same vein as Deliverance Dane but on a schedule. 

That said, The House of Velvet and Glass is a thoughtful and scholarly book.  Katherine Howe has painted a vivid picture of 1915 Boston - showing us how the mediums (charlatans) turned their tables, what the scientific minds at Harvard thought about visions of the future, and the inheritance of addiction.  There are beautiful moments and graces, fiery kisses and apparitions, a dance in the ballroom of a sinking ship.  Despite its flaws, it is a beautiful book.  It is not an epic but a slice of life, and it doesn't have to be more than that.

This review is actually about 500 words.  See what happens when you start small? 

Saturday, February 23, 2013


Adventures in Logophilia, Day 165:


A late Middle English term (Oxford Dictionaries) referring to a stray person or animal, especially a homeless child, found without an owner and quite by chance. Waif can also refer to an unclaimed piece of property found (as if washed up by the sea) or stolen goods abandoned by an absconding thief.  I am currently reading The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a beautiful novel about a such mysterious waif who enters the lives of a husband and wife on the Alaskan frontier ca. 1920.

 Stray cat

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Whimsy on Wednesday (Jillian)

A little literary news reel for you:

  • On the Telegraph, British author Hilary Mantel has won the Man Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies, a sequel to Wolf Hall, which follows Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII.  Bring Up the Bodies details the Anne Boleyn scandal and her unhappy end.  Ms. Mantel is one of two authors to have won the Man Booker Prize twice and the only woman to do so.  This is a great testament to the power of fiction written well... and historical fiction at that.  Hers is the only Tudor-esque novel out of the hundreds that exist that I want very badly to read. 
  • Ian McEwan, also a Booker Prize winner, has said recently that the novella is the perfect literary form.  He might be right but that's quite a difficult thing to accomplish.
  • NPR has a lovely article on the 60th anniversary of E.B. White's Charlotte's Web.
  • National Novel Writing Month is coming up in November.  Writer Unboxed has several posts on preparing for the project.  I am considering participating in it this year, if only to maintain my sanity during this time of the Sisyphean synopsis.  I think it would be a good way to churn out a first draft of a novel, intense though it may be. 
  • Publishers Marketplace had an article on Ann Patchett interviewing JK Rowling.  One tidbit I found interesting: "I find that discussing an idea out loud is often the way to kill it stone dead.  They all sound rubbish," she said. I find this to be particularly true.  My ideas for stories or little nuances in my novel must be kept inside - let out too soon, even in private dialogue with oneself, and the idea evaporates or turns to dust. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Charles Dickens: 200 Years Young (Jillian)

In case you live in a cave somewhere without internet, a newspaper or even a handy-dandy novelty calendar to remind you, today is Charles Dickens' birthday. My favorite websites are, of course, all over it... so I don't need to wax poetic quite to their degree. (Check out Google's banner for the occasion. Awesome!) Still, I could not let the day pass without adding my own little offerings on the occasion.

I was one of those who was exposed to Dickens early and never really knew why. First there was A Christmas Carol in middle school; then A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Nicholas Nickleby in high school. This in conjunction with later offerings of Moby Dick, Pride & Prejudice, Return of the Native, offerings from The Canterbury Tales and Wuthering Heights; it is hard to read Dickens if you're a teenager with her head in a galaxy far, far away or in Neverland or floating out in the cosmos somewhere in a Tardis.

Of course, if you're anything of a Whovian, you'll know that the Doctor met Charles Dickens and saved Cardiff from an invasion of ghostly aliens in 1869. But I digress...

Dickens is awesome - but you knew that, of course. It may have taken my little brain a while to realize it, but it is quite obvious. In recent years, I've become blissfully lost in all the plot paths, back alleyways, shadows and sudden turns of his work. It takes patience. The man uses a lot of words. He can ramble. He can paint a very intricate political allegory (case in point, the plethora of Barnacles in the useless Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit). It is not easy to begin him young. But he is a delight to dive into a little later.

Claire Tomalin puts it this way (as I read it in Linda Wertheimer's article on NPR today): "He did these great walks — he would walk every day for miles and miles, and sometimes I think he was sort of stoking up his imagination as he walked, and thinking of his characters. The way he built his novels was through the voices of his characters."

That, I think, is the fundamental reason his stories resonate so clearly with us today. It is a piece of advice from beyond the grave, as it were, from one Great Writer to this little writer: "think of your characters and their voices."

What I celebrate today is a Writer of Writers, whose stories move us. Films and plays of his works will forever challenge filmmakers, actors and writers for years to come. Today, the Prince of Wales, Dickens' descendants, and many, many others paid their respects, and placed white roses and snowdrops on his grave. Ralph Fiennes read a passage from Bleak House. In so many ways, it was clear how Mr. Dickens is alive in all of us.

What a wonderful thing it is to remember a writer, a wordsmith, a story-teller, to continue to laud his accomplishments and consider the mystery of his life. It demonstrates what we hold onto as human beings - how much we cherish the art of Story, and how that will carry us into a hopeful future.

Thank you, Mr. Dickens, for the ways in which you inspire all of us to write and imagine.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book to Film (Jillian)

Still from The Hobbit, starring Martin Freeman. Due out next year.

As a writer, I have a great (perhaps natural) interest in books that grow up to be made into films. I do get a little queasy, however, when such a film deviates from its original material to the extent that it is an entirely different story. But I always come back to my philosophy: a novel and a film are two completely different art forms - words and images - therefore, they cannot and will not be able to convey a story in the exact same way.

Twilight and Harry Potter aside, the biggest discussions I've heard (and perhaps been a part of) in the last several years, have inv0lved the innumerable film adaptations of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte's novels, new television and film revivals of Sherlock Holmes, an Oscar-contending remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and excitement over The Hunger Games, which hits theaters in March. The Hunger Games, by the way, looks exactly the way I envisioned it. I'll have a quiver in my spine till I can go see it!

There is an unconscious desire among fans for a perfect film version of Pride & Prejudice or Jane Eyre. Many cite the 1995 "Colin Firth" version of Pride & Prejudice as "the best", whereas others appreciate the simple, natural beauty of the 2005 film. For Jane Eyre, the debate has recently been strung between the 2006 BBC version starring Ruth Wilson, and last year's film starring Mia Wasikowska. There are as many opinions as there are films. One thing it does show us is that these stories resonate strongly... that we want to see it retold again and again, from different camera angles, with different faces, with new music, in new colors. This kaleidoscope of story is an incredibly beautiful thing!

What prompted my thoughts today is a quiver of excitement about The Hobbit. A trailer was released this week, a year in advance. I have to say I was skeptical about The Hobbit being brought to film (actually two), as the story, frankly, is a bit of a hiccup of events prior to The Lord of the Rings. Knowing Peter Jackson, I am well aware that liberties will be taken, that story lines may be embellished, and the final product will be spectacular.

Having seen the trailer, I am excited - not because this is a translation of a beloved story into film, but because it looks as good as The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings, books and films, has an incredibly special place in my heart. I will see The Hobbit next year knowing 1.) this is a mixture of Jackson's storytelling with Tolkein's storytelling; 2.) it will have a lot more in it than the book did; 3.) I may not agree with some of these creative changes, but; 4.) I will enjoy it very much.

In other words, to boycott a film because it isn't exactly like the book is silly. In some ways, perhaps the film of The Hobbit will delve deeper into plots and journeys (and not just because this story happens to feature a company of dwarves). That's possible, isn't it? But even if it is "better" or least "flashier" than the book, the film can in no way replace the book. A film is only a retelling.

One more example of novel-into-film is Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Book and film do not match because the story is told in different ways: the book is far more mysterious, magical and shadowy than the film; the film is faster, more adventurous and more perilous than the book. I love them both, just as I love the original and retold versions of The Lord of the Rings, Pride & Prejudice, and Jane Eyre.


As a side note, I am a little curious about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, mostly as a study in character. What I've read of Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander intrigues me, but I am not sure I'd want to be witness to the violence and brutality that inevitably comes with the story. I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Scribbling Suit (Jillian)

Another “rediscovery” I have recently made is that of Little Women, and the ways in which art comes out of the lives of the four March sisters; particularly Jo with her fiery, independent spirit and passion for writing. I’ll share with you a passage:
Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and “fall into a vortex,” as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for that till that was finished she could find no peace. Her “scribbling suit” consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, “Does genius burn, Jo?” They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on, in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew, and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew, and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did anyone dare address Jo. [page 260; Louisa May Alcott.]
A scribbling suit. I am intrigued by the little rituals we perform in order to bring about the fullness of a writing session, or prepare and properly clothe ourselves to enter our respective “vortexes.” I know I must clear my desk of non-essentials, light candles, don fingerless gloves, and perhaps make tea. Sometimes there is music, sometimes not. The windows must be open, and the cat safely barred from entering the writing space. These benign little performances are good for us; the writing space (whether window seat, desk or the back corner of a coffee shop) transforms into a personalized palette on which to experiment with ideas… in all their colors, hues and textures. Thinking on Jo, she can put all other things aside and enter into something new, something entirely immune to curiosity from the outside world. Not an escape; but an expedition.

I also think on other literary characters who possess creative inclinations. Jane Eyre. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility). Cassandra Mortmain (I Capture the Castle). Jo’s sisters Amy, Beth and Meg. Dorothea Brooke Casauban (Middlemarch). What strikes me about these characters (and many, many others) is not that a tendency towards art sets them apart from other characters (i.e. make them by contrast to be eccentric or unique), but that their art shows them to be creative beings, striving to achieve the most of their human potential: not simply to be, but to discover, to create, and to find joy in their own particular corner of life.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Future of Reading (Jillian)

I have to say, I just read a Newsweek article by Anna Quindlen - "Reading Has a Strong Future". I found it wonderfully hopeful about the future of writing and literacy in our increasingly technological age. As iPads and Kindles have made their debut into the world, there has been a pressing question... whether or not they will eventually replace books... and whether or not that is a terrible thing. I encourage you to read it for yourself!!

Some of my favorite snippets:

"The invention of television led to predictions about the demise of radio. The making of movies was to be the death knell of live theater; recorded music, the end of concerts. All these forms still exist—sometimes overshadowed by their siblings, but not smothered by them."

"There is and has always been more than a whiff of snobbery about lamentations that reading is doomed to extinction. That's because they're really judgments on human nature."

"Reading is not simply an intellectual pursuit but an emotional and spiritual one. It lights the candle in the hurricane lamp of self; that's why it survives. There are book clubs and book Web sites and books on tape and books online. There are still millions of people who like the paper version, at least for now. And if that changes—well, what is a book, really? Is it its body, or its soul?"

(Soul! SOUL!!!!)


Innovations like this have happened before. Television and radio. Movies and theatre. Typewriters and legal pads. And now books and kindle. Notice that books are still holding their own in our culture. No one has abandoned them yet. These innovations are simply creating new options for enjoying literature, not erasing it or taking it for granted. Kindles and iPads and whatever new inkling of genius that follows will still convey that flame... readers will read, writers will write.

And honestly, I don't think books will disappear as fast as some people fear. ;)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Book Love (Michelle)

I have a friend who consistently has fascinating quotes for her gmail status...which is nice for me! Here's one of her latest.

"Make books your companions; let your bookshelves be your gardens: bask in their beauty, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and myrrh. And when your soul be weary change from garden to garden, and from prospect to prospect."

--- Judah ibn Tibbon, 1120-c. 1190

Monday, November 24, 2008

Words of Wisdom on Narrative (Jillian)

Hello. I return, having read another article from the Daily Telegraph... discussing the timeless power of stories, despite the sad occurrence of library-closings and the increase of use of the internet... and the overflow of "junk" that is messing with the English language. It is a hopeful article written by Sam Leith, called "Grand Theft Auto, Twitter and Beowulf all demonstrate that stories never die."

Some wonderful tidbits I must share:

"...reading fiction is not a trivial activity. Not only does narrative pleasure sugar the pill of learning in all sorts of areas, it is a good in and of itself."

It is goodness! It really does bash that notion that stories are "just" stories, those fringes of the human experience when they are really far more that!

"Reading a full-length novel on a screen is next to impossible. Your back aches. Your mouth parches. Your eyes fall out. For portability, browsability and ease of annotation the book is the best form of technology we have; and has been since its invention."

I think to how books first began to be assembled... way before the printing press came into use via vellum and inks, and sewn together by diligent monks in monasteries. Over a thousand years later, the book really hasn't changed much at all. They are so timeless... and human!

Stories are central to how we think about the world: from the individual to the wide sweep of history. The ability to put yourself in another's shoes is the foundation-stone of all morality...
And what is that but an imaginative process? Where do we learn it but in stories? ... "In dreams begins responsibility," said W B Yeats. He wasn't kidding."

I love that quote! Can you see the story-threads binding together all humanity? I can!


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