J. K. Rowling: It Is Our Choices…

It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

J. K. Rowling

Lana Del Rey: If You Are Born an Artist…

If you are born an artist, you have no choice but to fight to stay an artist.

Lana Del Rey

Aristotle: Excellence, then, is a state…

Excellence, then, is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean, relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it.

Aristotle

Arthur Miller: Where Choice Begins…

Where choice begins, Paradise ends, innocence ends, for what is Paradise but the absence of any need to choose this action?

Arthur Miller

The Re-View: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005)

Historian, The

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, originally published in 2005 by Little, Brown.

A literary historical thriller set in the early- to mid-1970s with letters presenting scenes set in the 1930s and the 1950s. A teenage girl stumbles on her father’s past dealings the Dracula and finds herself plunged into her own desperate search for the truth.

What I Liked

Kostova used a mastery of lush, metaphorical language to evoke a strong sense of place for each of the varied locations in the story: notably Istanbul, Bulgaria, Romania, but also France, the Netherlands, England, the Adriatic…  She also planted information well in advance of needing it–a crucial skill for thrillers, I think. The premise of the book itself, that the garlic-fearing Dracula of Bela Lugosi’s portrayals is Vlad the Impaler of the fifteenth century and, moreover, is still alive–or rather, undead–today, allows her to delve into the horrific legends of both Dracula and Vlad the Impaler, and thicken the gothic atmosphere.

Maps! The publisher gave us maps! I love maps! Why doesn’t every book have them?

What I Noticed

As I found myself underlining dark, black, red, white, and light where they occurred in the text, I gradually realized that Kostova was relying a fair amount on national origin to convey a sense of either threat or safety. At one point, Paul, the father of the unnamed main character, is looking at the face Helen during a emotionally tense scene (p. 435 in my hardcover), and is reminded of her family history. He is relieved, and on some level, absolves her, when he remembers the other side of her family, “mild, patrician, Tuscan, and Anglo”. I was very uncomfortable by the characterization because it felt like contrasting the literal dark and light of her ancestry. That being said, I am also hyper-aware of the conflation of metaphorical light and dark with race and ethnicity, because of some topics in my own work, and the legend of Dracula, especially, is rife with metaphors of the dark. I’m not sure what to do with the awareness, but it’s there.

What I Learned

As a reader, examining writer’s point-of-view (POV) choices is always fascinating, because I want more. Tell me more about what everyone is thinking and doing. I hate for anything to happen “off-camera”, and being limited to one character, while fascinating, can also be frustrating. Since I also get frustrated because no book is ever long enough for me, I understand that an author must make editorial choices to prevent a book from rambling on too long. Kostova had to deal with several different points of view in order to tell the full story. She handled this by maintaining a first person POV for the skeleton of the book, then fleshing out the story through letters, or through one character telling a story to another, which worked, brilliantly. How those different parts fit together into the physical book, however, varied. An actual letter is given in italics within the text. When the protagonist’s father tells her a story, it is usually given its own chapter. His words are not enclosed within quotation marks, but the speech is identified by inserting “my father said,” as a clause within the first sentence. In the second half of the book, however, Kostove abandons the main character’s narrative (by necessity, as she is much closer to the climax with a great deal of backstory still needing to be provided), to focus almost exclusively on the letters of her father. The editors chose not to continue the use of italics to identify the letters, probably feeling that it would be disruptive to the flow, but instead enclosed them within quotation marks. However this lead to starting every single paragraph for at least a quarter of a six hundred forty-two page book with double quotation marks. And when that paragraph was dialogue, the quotes were nested. And of course, the dialogue, very rarely, quoted another individual, so the editors gave us “‘” to start the paragraph. It would have been much better–much kinder to the reader–to have found another way to offset the letters of the father. The easiest, perhaps, would have been to parallel the oral stories by writing “my father wrote,” in the first sentence and leave it at that. It certainly would have been more comfortable to read–the constant quotation marks meant that I was forever checking to be sure that I was recognizing dialogue and narrative properly.

I was aware also of her choices to ‘show’ or to ‘tell’. Writers are, of course, universally enjoined to “show, don’t tell”, but the flip side of that is every motion must be portrayed in excruciating detail. I paid particular attention to Kostova’s choices of when to give detail and when to summarize because I’m trying to understand the balance of the two, and how it changes the reader’s experience. While I started out crankily wielding the editor’s pen and underlining phrases like “she looked at me oddly”, I realized very quickly that only some much attention can be lavished on details. Kostova’s lush descriptions would be weighted down and overbearing if every single thing were spelled out. Sometimes the narrative is better served by summarizing, by telling and getting on with it. This is particularly true, I suspect, for a thriller, when pacing is everything.

~A note: remember that while I may point out weaknesses, I loved this book. Go read it.~

A New Series: The Re-View

A book review series: The Re-View.

I love books. I am, before anything else, a reader, and if I didn’t have other obligations that demanded I interact with the real world, I would do nothing but read. I am also a writer, and I’m trying to learn to read books as a writer. This means I’m reading with a pen in my hand, making notes and comments, trying to interact with what I read. It doesn’t cheapen the experience, which I was afraid of, but gives the book more depth and helps me to understand what the author is doing throughout the work.

A book I haven’t read is a book I haven’t read, whether it was published yesterday or last century, or a few centuries before that. The newest book isn’t always the best book. When I look for the next book to read, I don’t just look for the latest book to come out, although I always look forward to finding new books by authors I love. I just want to find another book to fall in love with.

In that spirit, I’m going to start a new series, The Re-View. I will review books, but with a twist: only books that have been out for a while. I’m taking a shot in the dark and saying books that have been published no more recently than the last decade, but I might change my mind about that. Or make exceptions to it. Or not. Who knows?

I only finish books that I like, and I don’t have the energy to write a negative review, so anything I review here is something that I’ve loved. That being said, I intend also to pick it apart, to understand what worked and what didn’t. I want to learn from it. Toward that end, I’ll focus on three areas: what I liked, what I noticed, and what I learned.

My goal is to look at one book a month, on the first Monday, but I might increase it. We’ll see.

Richter: Our memories…

Our memories are the only paradise from which we can never be expelled.

Jean Paul Richter

 

In Loving Memory

Marcia Kay Purdy

September 24, 1952 – December 2, 2014

Benjamin E. Mays: The tragedy of life…

The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.

Benjamin E. Mays

Proverb: Wish for…

Wish for a strong mind.

Latin Proverb

Hank Aaron: I’ll just try…

I’ll just try to get one home run at a time.

Hank Aaron

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