Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Galloping to, Um, Whatever?

At the finish line! I've been toiling all summer on new novel. It's not the third in the Mary Ryan series (although I do have a kick-ass idea for the third book), but this is something, um, different(?). Husband is heading off to Burning Man to be wild and crazy--the antidote to his being uber responsible and conscientious the other fifty-one weeks of the year--and I'm finishing this goddamn book.

I'm not sure if other writers have the same peaks and valleys when they write, but these are mine. Around the 20,000-word mark I'm far enough into the story to have spent some significant effort and time, and yet I feel a little unsure. For one thing, I've got another at least 60,000 words to go and that feels so unbelievably daunting. Plus, this is where I start to wonder if I can pull this off. I do liken being a writer to being a magician, and at this point, I've gotten no farther in the trick than opening my hands to show that they are empty. This is probably the most dangerous point in the whole process. Yes, I've spent a goodly number of hours at my keyboard, but I could walk away without too much self-flagellation. I had my typical 20,000-word meltdown with this book, but my critique group said, "Oh noes, keep on going!" Which is one (but certainly not the only) reason why I'm in this critique group.

The next critical point is around the 50,000-word mark. This is generally where I feel euphoric. I've worked out most of the bugs and the world is so beautiful! I tend to do that as I write, revisiting chapters over and over again, so by 50,000 words it's a very solid 50,000 words. Plus, there's only about 25,000-30,000 words to go. Right?

Right, and oh on my god, there are the most painful and awful words. Because this is the point in any book where I have to produce the rabbit out of the hat. It means wrapping up plot points, making sure that *I've* made sure that the novel up to this point is going to serve my ending, and that the entire frigging book makes sense.

I've read many books where the last third is the most deadly. Where a writer has had a fantastic idea and served it well but couldn't quite pull it off, and in the last 30,000 words the entire concept falls apart (and yes, Nick Hornby, I'm looking at you and "Juliet, Naked" and the last book in the Harry Potter series). The rabbit has to appear. And this is where the magic metaphor ends because generally a writer can do all sorts of wonderful things to make you fall in love with a book, but if the end doesn't work, then you've failed as an author. It's like a getting the most fantastic meal and being served a boiled shoe for dessert. No amount of verbal pyrotechnics are going to save you. The ending must work, and while you can often band-aid problems in a book with a great ending, if you have a great book but a lousy ending, then you've lost the reader. IMO.

So we are on the home stretch. I've got maybe another 5,000 words to crank out, assuming that critique group doesn't absolutely loathe the chapters I'm going to submit tomorrow night. Then the first draft is done. And then it's to my agent for vetting and her esteemed opinion.

Then we see.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Book review: Muriel Spark: the Biography by Martin Stannard

I had a ridiculously long post on this book, and then I hit the wrong key and lost it all. Whenever that happens I take it as a sign that I'm being too long-winded. I understand that Mr. Stannard has written a marvelous book on Evelyn Waugh, and as his biography of Ms. Spark is exceptionally well written, I intend to pick it up. Having said that, I don't this book is well done. Its key flaw is that Mr. Stannard is besotted with Muriel Spark, and his devotion is so marked that it derails the biography. I'm sure that all the facts are in place. Muriel Spark wrote this in 1955 and moved to Italy in this year and got her OBE in that year. Yes, I'm sure all that is very factual. Mr. Stannard is a meticulous writer, but he's not a very honest writer.

Analysis of her books is, naturally, a substantial part of this book, and yet he is so enamoured with her that I don't trust what he has to say about them. Why? Because he repeatedly gives her a pass on her inexcusable behavior. No matter how many times you type that Muriel Spark was an artist and in the passion of exacting that art she was allowed to be dictatorial, rude, vicious, and selfish, it doesn't absolve her of being dictatorial, rude, vicious, and selfish. The woman was a frigging monster of selfishness. I have little time for people who use art as an excuse to be a jerk. She had a long history of cutting people out of her life for the most trivial reasons. The friend who happened to stop by while she was out getting her hair done and earned a dressing down worthy of committing high crimes and treason is just one instance where you as the reader are wondering what in the hell is wrong with this woman? As her fame grew, it seems clear that people were merely props in her rapacious climb to success. At one point the only person she hadn't banished from her sight was her agent. Interestingly, at this point, when she had cut out nearly everyone in her life, her writing became more and more obscure and fantastical. Naturally, she was writing for one person: herself. When she began to emerge from her self-imposed exile from the bores of the world, her novels become more generalized and, no surprise, much more autobiographical. In the last three decades of her life she seems to have found tolerable minions. People who when she said jump, they jumped. And they didn't jump otherwise.

Stannard's refusal to call her on this behavior (and I understand they were, at the very least acquaintances and she offered him access to her papers) mars what is an interesting book. Also, I felt he conveniently elided over her conversion. I never understood why she converted and came away feeling that she only did so as a means of separating her from her fellow Brits and her family. Her Catholicism was quite fluid, and without more in depth analysis, it's hard to see it as anything but a response to Dexedrine-inspired psychotic break.

But let's give credit where credit is due. This is a woman from a working-class neighborhood in Scotland who never went on to university, and yet through sheer brilliance and grit more than held her own with the Oxbridge men of letters of her time. I just wished I'd liked her more, and I wish Stannard hadn't been so wimpy.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Book review: The Tudors

I was a history major at U.C. Berkeley, and my specific field was English Tudor-era history, so you can imagine that a huge hunk of my bookshelves are devoted to this subject. There is something of an embarrassment of riches on this topic, from J. J. Scarsbrick's definitive biography on Henry VIII to Antonia Fraser's book on Mary, Queen of Scots. I can say with confidence that there isn't a popular history of the Tudors that has been published that I haven't read, and I've read a great number of the academic studies as well. So yeah. I get them, I know them, and I looked at this book sitting on the shelf of my local bookstore and thought, please, do I need to read yet another book on the Tudors?

Yes, I did, as it turns out.

Other reviews that I've read focus on the problem with the scope of this book, with literally half of the content devoted to Henry VIII. Which begs the question, why is it called "The Tudors"? I won't say that it's not a problem. Clearly, Meyer is fascinated with Henry VIII and the men who served him (Woolsey, Cromwell, and More are not your run-of-the-mill bureaucrats), and I think that he very much shortchanged the last fourth of the book, which is devoted to Elizabeth Tudor. I get the sense he was exhausted and gliding over events that really could have used some of his tremendous insight and turn of phrase that makes the first two-thirds of this book so enjoyable.

Because really, when you've read as many books as I have on the Tudors, it's the writing that becomes paramount, and this man can write. He's got an ease and facility for taking fairly complicated events and parsing them down to the bones. His chapters regarding Cromwell's stealth and ever-increasingly fatal attacks on the Catholic church are so well done that it's worth buying this book for those chapters alone.

There are a series of sidebars that I know annoyed some people, but I liked them. They take you out of the "story" to a certain extent, but I didn't mind. For an overview history, you don't NEED to read them, but they are, in and of themselves, interesting. The out-take on exactly what societal functions the Catholic church performed and how the break with Rome and cannibalization of the Church as a way to seriously pump-up Henry's power and coincidentally boost the Crown's coffers is especially well done.

I think that the point of the structure (front-loading the book with so much "Henry") is that Henry VIII so fundamentally changed the nature of kingship--castrating the Catholic Church in the process--that his heirs were not only dealing with the usual problems of a small island nation trying to play with the big boys (Spain and France), but faced the double whammy of trying to establish order in the wake of Henry's determined (some might say maniacal) juggernaut to establish his dynasty, regardless of the cost. And this book explains that cataclysmic upheaval (on all levels of society) very nicely, with Henry's heirs struggling to impose order on a society where all of a sudden the rules have changed.

On my Goodreads page I only gave this four stars because I do think the section on Elizabeth could have benefited with a more rigorous treatment. Having said that, Meyer's writing is engaging, witty, and humorous, with a fresh take on a topic that has been revisited many times in the last twenty years. I found myself smiling and enjoying every word. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Book Rec: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

In my other life, I'm something of a Harry Potter fanatic. I know far too much about Harry Potter and that fandom than I'm comfortable admitting. So I picked up what has been labeled the adult "Harry Potter" with a little curiosity. Initially, I thought, well, I have to admit I'm a Harry Potter nut because it will color my review to a ridiculous degree. But having read this book and thought long and hard about it, there are very few similarities, and the similarities that I do see are actually the weaknesses in both books/series.

First of all, there is a fair amount of lip service to a myriad of childhood fantasy books. Pick your poison. Chronicles of Narnia. Yep. Harry Potter. Yep. Hints of Tolkien. Other reviewers who are more into the fantasy realm that I am have listed a number of books that the author slyly acknowledges throughout the novel. The one book I have not seen mentioned is "The Phantom Tollbooth," which I think actually has much more relevance in some ways than any of these books. This is a book about a quest that only the protagonist can realize. Indeed, the inside flap of my copy has a map of the magical land, Fillory, which is so similar to the map in my beat-up paper copy of "The Phantom Tollbooth" that I half expected the protagonist to be named "Milo."

The good. We come out swinging here. Mr. Grossman is by far a much better writer than J. K. Rowling (JKR). He doesn't use excessive world-building to mask an inability or weakness in characterization. To be fair to JKR, not writing for children frees Mr. Grossman up quite a lot, and his book reads true; young men and woman talk like this. I have a kids roughly the same age as these kids, and like my kids they are rude, somewhat irreverent, definitely crude, and yet vulnerable with each other. Plus, setting this novel in a magical college allows him further grit. We have copious amounts of underage sex, drinking, and drug-taking at Brakesbill (the magician college), which pretty much describes my college career. He does not have the albatross that JKR carried around with her for the last five books, which is, who in the hell was her audience? By the end, I don't even think she knew, and it meant that she swung back and forth between both her children's audience and her adult audience, which weakened the series to a near-fatal degree. Mr. Grossman's setting is mature, biting, and all too believable. All the kids that populate this novel have an edge (with the exception of one, and I did have issues with that because that's the one character who becomes the martyr--how convenient).

Basically this is a coming of age novel. Where as Harry Potter had to come to terms with some madman who longed for immortality and thought Harry was the ticket to life-ever lasting, Quentin Coldwater, the protagonist of the Grossman book, is a sullen malcontent, whose magical abilities don't seem to free him from malaise so much as add to it. He loves magic and yet it does not liberate him. Much like Harry Potter, who is strangely untouched by the evil done to him and others, Quentin is untouched by pretty much everything around him. I don't need to like my protagonists and I must admit that Quentin is a compelling narrator, but I'm not sure by the end of the book that I understood what made him tick. He's seemingly asbestos, then he's not, then he is, and at the last are we to assume he's not again?

The magic in this book is appropriately dark and forbidding. And unlike the Harry Potter books where there is a clear line between "good" magic and "bad" magic, here it's a shifting line. As the story progresses in Grossman's book, the choice to use what spells turns out to be a matter of survival than anything else. The brief nod to Quidditch (welters in this book) is pointless. I would have taken it out. Quidditch in Harry Potter played several critical roles (perhaps the most critical was to fake out the reader into thinking that the novels were moving forward), and I think the minor plot points introduced could have been salted in elsewhere.

Where we have Adult Harry Potter Meets the Phantom Tollbooth is Quentin's obsession with the magical world Fillory, the setting of a childrens' book series that ended abruptly with literally no ending. Hark! The magical world in these books is real! No surprises there. I predicted that it would figure prominently in the story no later than twenty pages into this novel. Yet, it's a still a fascinating world (although there were some plot points at the end that left me scratching my head. No one else has commented on these gaffs, but I found myself asking, "Wait a minute. Why was this person killed if this person..." And "Why is **** is a prisoner, if the **** allows the very **** keeping the **** prisoner into the room?")

The one issue that I do have with the Grossman book is a compelling disdain for adults. The parents in this book are completely dismissible and in some cases odious. In fact, the children who go to Brakebills might as well be orphans. While that makes for convenient plot contrivances, it tends to maroon the characters and the choices that they make in many cases don't have consequences emotionally. Don't go home for Christmas. No problem. They won't even know I'm gone. And, of course, as is similar in the Harry Potter books, the adults don't exactly mentor. They use these kids unmercifully to fight the battles they cannot fight (or are too afraid to fight). This absence of adults might have made the book easier to plot, concentrating all evolving drama between the students themselves, but by the end (when all is revealed) it comes off as a plot contrivance, in my opinion. One that bled some of the tension out of the story because these kids aren't making a choice between one world or the other. Perhaps that was the point--Quentin in the end had no choice--but it left me a little irritated.

The ending of this book is appropriately ambiguous, mainly because the protagonist still remains somewhat aloof from the reader. I would say that for me that there was never a sense that Quentin ever wakes up. That the charges leveled against him by his girlfriend, Alice, remain true. He will never, ever, be happy. That does not change by the end of the book, and I wonder as a reader what I'm supposed to derive from this. That by the end of the book, as was the case in the beginning, Quentin seems passive of his own destiny. Someone is putting choices in front of this young man that he can either reject or not, but as a reader I would have thought that his experience would have, at the very least, liberated him from his passivity. In the end, this seems less a coming of age novel so much as an enduring question mark of who this young man is.