Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Anita Shreve: Varying a Storyline’s Peak Action

Anita Shreve is the author of 17 novels plus 2 non-fiction works. The Pilot’s Wife (1998) made it into Oprah’s Book Club and Resistance (1995) was made into a film. I have read three of her novels and I find it interesting how each one places the apex of action at different parts of the story.

Testimony (2008) starts off with a bang (forgive the bad pun) when a private school headmaster gets ahold of a sex tape involving four of his pupils—one underage girl and three older boys. The rest of the story deals with the aftermath. This book was, by far, my favorite.

A Change in Altitude (2009) has a storyline whose crescendo follows the story’s main event itself—a mountain climb. One of the pinnacles—the shocking death of one of the characters—occurs right in the middle of the book. With the well-rounded characters and detailed description of life in Kenya, this book also ranks high among my recent reads.

The third, The Weight of Water (1997) received several accolades including wins for The New England Book Award, The Pen/L.L. Winship Award, and a shortlist spot for The Orange Prize. Yet, I liked this one the least. In fact, I quit in the middle and tossed it aside for several weeks.

The difficulty was the slow build of drama. We have a woman on a boat taking pictures of several tiny islands off the New England Coast—islands whose main claim to fame is hosting a double murder in the previous century. Mrs. M.C. is accompanied on this endeavor by her husband, young daughter, brother-in-law, and his girlfriend—who, by the way, may or may not be fooling around with the M.C.’s husband.

The narrative is interrupted over and over by the M.C. thinking about the facts behind the old murder case—well done, but jarring nonetheless. Later whole chapters are devoted to letters written by the sole survivor of the slaughter and that’s where I started to lose it. These letters are as dull and dreary as the 1800’s life on a rock they describe.

But I kept going. The back cover promised tragedy and I wanted my money’s worth. Finally, things got moving in the last few chapters. Boy, did they ever. It got so tense I had to skip ahead to see what happened, something I almost never, ever do.

I got my tragedy and then some. But, I was a little miffed because Shreve puts character A in mortal danger, and while the rest of the cast is distracted saving A, character B dies. Hmmm, where have I seen/read that before? Seriously, help me out here. I know I’ve seen this before.

Anyway, I do understand why The Weight of Water won those awards. The setting is a character itself and how the dual storylines of past and present complement each other is a work of art. Comparing and contrasting how unfounded jealousy leads to death in these two storylines would make an excellent term paper. Seeing as my school days are far behind me, I'll leave this as an exercise for someone else.

Where do the peaks of action/emotion occurs in your writing or favorite books?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bad Moon Rising

A strange thing happened to me recently. I read a book by a well-known, lauded author and didn’t like it. It was Alice Sebold’s The Almost Moon. Sebold’s first novel, The Lovely Bones, was a huge success. Lots of people love that book. I love that book. It was made into a movie, which I would like to see. I read Sebold’s memoir Lucky and loved that too.

So what the heck happened? I think it comes down to characters. Both The Lovely Bones and Lucky are about young women who are raped and how they rise above the horror in an astonishing and heroic manner. These are characters (well, an actual person in the case of Lucky) that you want to stand up and cheer for.

In The Almost Moon, the main character starts off the novel by smothering her elderly mother who is suffering from dementia. It’s a kick-butt first chapter, but I had a tough time getting through the rest of the book. The writing was superb, but the pace was tedious. What a weird combination!

Now, as much as I like to think that I am unique, I know I’m not. So I clicked over to Amazon to check out the reviews for The Almost Moon and guess what? Out of almost three hundred reviews, a full one-third, yes 100 reviewers, gave this book one star. So it’s not just me. It was very interesting to read these reviews and see the same sentiments show up over and over. Here are two comments that sum up my reaction to this odd book:

Stephen S. Mills: This book is compelling and strange and never lets you off the hook for a second. It challenges your thinking, your own relationships, and that thin line between normal behavior and the grotesque. This may not be "enjoyable" but it is powerful and worthy of anyone's time.

A reply to Mills by Jeffrey: The problem with The Almost Moon is not, in my mind, the subject. It's the characters. Sebold makes her protagonist patently unlikeable. And it's hard to enjoy a book when the reader spends so much time hating the main character.

I find the use of the word ‘enjoy’ interesting in these comments. What does it mean to ‘enjoy’ a book? If you find yourself disliking a book, do you finish it or not?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dwarf Mania?

Image courtesy: Boston Public Library

Dwarfs are not common—about 1 in a 40,000 births. (The preferred term today is 'Little People' if you meet one.) Yet I’ve read three books this year, none of which are fantasy à la Tolkien, that feature dwarfs. In fact, all three were historical novels. Is this remarkable? A new fad? Or just one of those strange coincidences?

The first was Hannah Tinti’s The Good Thief. The young hero, Ren, is staying at a widow’s lodging house when something drops down from the chimney. Not a squirrel or a bird or even a raccoon. No, it’s a dwarf. Ms. Tinti explained that the house she grew up in had many chimneys and animals often fell down them. She deliberately chose something shocking to pop out of the chimney in her novel and later had to 'fit' her choice into the storyline. The reader eventually discovers this fellow is the landlady’s brother. He sneaks down the chimney to eat his supper each night and leaves a wooden carving as a gift.

In Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, the presence of a dwarf is no surprise at all considering the story’s setting is a traveling circus. The diminutive character here starts out as a rather surly man whose only redeming quality is the tender way he takes care of his small dog. Later the novel's hero befriends the dwarf. Just when the reader has gotten good and attached to the character, the dwarf and his dog are flung from the train to their deaths by the evil circus owner. (I'm still not over it.)

So I know why these two feature dwarfs, but the third is less clear. In Robert Hicks’ A Separate Country the dwarf Rintrah is an orphan raised by nuns who eventually becomes the equivalent of an Italian mob boss with a strong streak of philanthropy toward the downtrodden black population of New Orleans. Why would Hicks choose this unusual character to be a dwarf? Perhaps it’s not so strange. People with achondroplastic dwarfism are a blend of normal sized heads and torsos with short arms and legs—a physical manifestation of the strange duality of his actions—murderer to some, savior to others.

All things considered, a dwarf is not such a strange choice after all. Giving a character such an unusual condition will cement them in the reader’s mind—much more memorably than someone who is unusually good-looking, or clumsy, or shy. I should also note that each book balances these Little People with a giant-sized character, though in Water For Elephants, that character has a trunk.

So have you run across dwarfs or other characters with rare traits in your reading?