January 29, 2007

The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere

A very good friend of mine, who happened to have been an English major at a really amazing liberal arts college (I have some serious education envy on this point, but I digress), loaned me Sue Limb's book, The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere and told me that, as a former English major, I absolutely *had* to read it. So I did.

This book charmed me so much that I didn't know what to do with myself. I almost felt like I should thank it for being such a clever, lovely read by treating it to tea and scones at Lovejoy's (SF's yummiest and most Jane Austen approved tea house).

The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere is a sort of gentle parody of some of the most famous poets writing during England's Romantic period. Sue Limb tells her story through Dorothy Wordsmith's journal entries as she and her brother, the great poet William Wordsmith (aka Wordsworth), settle into domestic tranquility at Vole Cottage. Limb gives Dorothy's journal a handwritten look, complete with doodlings in the margins and Freudian scratch-outs (the Wordsworth siblings were apparently rather questionably close and the real Dorothy devoted her life to the service of her brother's towering "organ of the imagination"). It's really, really funny - especially when Limb's interspersed illustrations underscore the parody. My favorite was of Dorothy lifting an armoir while begging her "Beloved Wm" not to strain himself with two books. Limb also gives us bits of William Wordsmith's poetry, most notably "The Withered Turnip" and "The Sod Wall" done in Wordsworth's style (which is admittedly a little on the dry side).

During their stay at the idyllic Vole Cottage, their dear friend and fellow poet, Cholerick (Coleridge), comes to stay with them, bringing with him a little brown bottle of "medicine" and his famously sensitive bowels. Lord Byro (Byron) appears, bringing with him a pregnant Italian woman who proceeds to give birth in the upstairs bedroom while Byro himself seduces every female in sight. I especially liked the bit where a stray lightening bolt strikes Dorothy's stays and corset, zapping them right off of her when Byro enters the room. Also making an appearance are Percy Jelley (Shelley) and his lovely new bride Mary Godwit (Wollstonecraft Godwin) who are being pursued by her irate father because they married, instead of choosing to live together unshackled by matrimony.

The Wordsmiths at Gorsemere is just a really charming and incredibly well-thought-out little book. Sue Limb obviously knows her Romantics and strikes the perfect balance between gentle satire and great storytelling. I think that anyone could really enjoy this book and it's definitely worth finding. If you're a former English major, I'm going to follow my friend's lead and say that you absolutely should read it. But even if you're not, pick it up if you come across it - the illustrations, story and humor will get you even if you never had to take a course on the Age of the Romantics in college!

January 21, 2007

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

I need to preface this post with several admissions:
1. I've been looking forward to reading this book for months and was ready to enjoy it regardless of its quality.
2. This is not a review of the book as a whole. It is a review of the first 100 pages.
3. I have never failed to finish a book because I found it to be unreadably bad. Until now.

I am now finding myself at a loss - for a way to begin and for words succinct and effective enough to make my point without making me sound like a literary hell harpy. So, for lack of a better place, I'll begin at the beginning with the author's own words.
Dahlquist, who is an accomplished playwrite, begins his first novel with the following sentence:

"From her arrival at the docks to the appearance of Roger's letter, written on crisp Ministry paper and signed with his full name, on her maid's silver tray at breakfast, three months had passed".

A little muddy. Forgivable, but a little muddy. He continues:

"On that morning, her poached eggs steaming in their silver bowl (gelatinous, gleaming), Miss Temple had not seen Roger Bascombe for seven days."

A little muddier and featuring some questionable sentence structure. I'm getting a slight sinking feeling in my stomach at this point, but it doesn't matter because I *want* to enjoy this book. It continues on in the vein and all the while, the author indulges in convoluted and unclear sentences meant to convey a Victorian sense of social minutia. Unfortunately he succeeds only in confusing the reader as to what is happening, why and to whom. Then, four pages in I'm stopped short by the following sentence:

"How, if she was with clarity embracing her new sense of loss and redefinition, did nothing - not even an especially cunning lacquered duck - generate interest?"

Ok. At this point I am with no small amount of "clarity", realizing that I'm only four pages into this book and already tired of the author's overly precious and highly contrived sentence structure and narrative style. It's as if he read Dickins once, maybe in college, and vaguely remembered that distinctive, sometimes chatty, Dickensian voice and thought it would be really neat to use it in his story, a story which is vaguely reminicent of Victorian penny-dreadfuls...and not in a good way.

Alright. So the style badly apes Dickens. Style is difficult and trying to make your modern authorial voice speak in a highly embellished Victorian tone would be very, very difficult. It doesn't mean the story (or at least the first 100 pages of it) is bad. Right? The characters could very easily redeem the entire thing and make it quite worth the read. Right? Perhaps...but not this time.

The Characters:
Once again I freely admit that I only read the first 100 pages, so I've only met two of the central characters: Miss Temple and Cardinal Chang. I'll begin with Miss Temple because Dahlquist begins with her. Barring the twisting maze of egregious embellishment, the author describes her as small, grey-eyed and of above average prettiness. Fine. Victorian heroines often are. She is also an heiress. Excellent. Victorian heroines in thrilling stories need money and security if they are going to have an adventure worth reading about. We are told that she is also intelligent, independent, spunky and ruthless. Dahlquist writes:

"it [her island upbringing] had marked her like a whip - though part of that marking was how very immune to whips she was and would, she trusted, remain".

All of these are excellent qualities for a fictitious heroine to have. Unfortunately, while we are *told* and told often that she is all of these things, the behavior that she *displays* led me to the conclusion that she is petty, arrogant, delusional and Stupid. After bumbling herself into a situation that any sane person would see as bloody dangerous for a chaste young woman alone in a sinister place (ie: interogation by beautiful women with knives, stumbling across unconcious bodies and being told to put on crotchless, yet "darling", silk pants) it isn't until she is actually in the process of getting raped (which she avoids through sheer dumb luck and the power of the plot) that she admits to herself that she's in a "dangerous spot" and should possibly "act carefully". I can't say that I was compelled to spend any more time with such an Idiot of a heroine. Luckily I didn't have to because at this point, Dahlquist switches his focus to one of the book's other "heroes".

Moving on to Cardinal Chang. Hmmm.... I bet there's a neat story behind that character's name. Well, there's a story. Cardinal Chang is neither a Cardinal nor Chinese. He is a "brutal assassin", with the "heart of a poet". Fine. I think that an assassin with qualities beyond the ability to kill people in creative ways has the potential to be quite interesting. He got the name "Chang" because when he was very young (though from a family of means) a young aristocrat slashed his face with a riding crop, damaging his vision and giving him scars across the bridge of his nose and eyes that make him appear "oriental". This gives Dahlquist a reason to give him super-sexy glasses with smoked lenses (he's light sensitive and he doesn't see very well. Yet he's an assassin). Chang is called "The Cardinal" because he wears a super-sexy, full length, Red Leather Coat (which he had stolen "from the costume rack of a traveling theater". Of course). A little conspicuous for an assassin you might ask? Well, lest the reader labor on under this misconception, Dahquist explains straight away that Chang feels this to be alright because anyone who wished to find him would, even if he was wearing "the drabbest grey wool". Not bloody likely, but Dahlquist obviously Loved the red leather coat. Finally, Dahlquist, in an effort to render his assassin three-dimentional, often interrupts Chang's thought processes with bits of bad poetry, for although it now hurts Chang to read, before his eyes had been damaged as a "child" he had been a "scholar" and has retained his love for the written word. A child scholar? Amazing! At this point, the sheer force of Dahlquist's contrivances finished me and I put the book down. From what I've read (and it's admittedly only an introduction to the character) Cardinal Chang is the culmination of all the things that a 12 year old boy or a 16 year old girl would think an assassin should be. I've seen more skillfully developed RPG characters.

After only 100 pages, I don't feel that I can speak to plot as I hadn't really seen much of one. The threat of the "sinister cabal" is as vague and muddy as the sentence structure. Items that were clearly meant to create suspense (ie: strange masked balls, private operating theaters and slashed clothing) left me feeling either unsatisfied or confused or incredulous.

Ultimately, I put the book down because it became painfully obvious that Dahlquist didn't know what he was talking about. He clearly did not study the narrative style he tried so hard to emulate. He clearly did not research the reality of being a young woman in a Victorian-type society. He clearly did not research the psychology involved in the adoption of a life as a professional killer or the requirements of such a life. Most damningly, he clearly did not think thoroughly enough to convincingly create the alternative society his readers are supposed to immerse themselves in. The first 100 pages of The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters read like a higly contrived and self indulgent first draft. Self-indulgence in first drafts is acceptable. It is not however, acceptable in anything people have to pay money to read. I simply cannot imagine forcing myself through another 700 pages of the same. Not even during Lent.

January 19, 2007

My Brother Hath a Blog

So, this entry has nothing, strictly speaking, to do with books. However, I am plugging my brother's blog, which is about teaching and the general state of education in California and the United States. He's a second year teacher (history and civics in high school and junior high) and he's starting his Master's in administration. He's also thought a lot about what it is to be effective in the classroom and the politics of education in general. Plus, he's just a pretty interesting and smart guy... :-)
So, check it out!

January 7, 2007

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

I went on a book buying orgy. Thanks to this and Christmas (gift certificates to book stores are Awesome. Period.) I have a fantastical amount of fiction that wants reading. This is very happy and I'm getting a tingle just looking at the ridiculous pile of books that has been quartered off and whose parts are slowly migrating around the house. Sigh of contentment...

So. Where was I?

A yes, a book on reading. So, with all of the books I bought, only one was non-fiction and I decided to start with that one because I'm currently in the middle of "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" (I know, even I can't believe I hadn't read it yet) and as many may know, it's a little on the longish side and wants all of one's attention. I'm one of those people who doesn't like to have their salad on the same plate as their steak for fear of getting a steaky salad or a salady steak. And what does this have to do with anything, one might ask? Well, I'll tell you. I'm the same way with books. Because I'm reading the rather steaky (and yummy by the way) "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" I wanted something seperate and different so as not to make the flavors mush together. So, I picked up Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer".

This book is fantastic. Actually I don't think I have a word for how great I think this book is. Prose goes through the basics of close reading - reading not just for content but for characterization, structure, style and voice. She starts with words and moves on to the appreciation of sentences, paragraphs, dialogue and narrative - everything that makes prose effective. I wish my undergraduate classes had been such a comprehensive examination of how fiction functions. I especially appreciate that Prose includes numerous and diverse works as examples of what she very succinctly explores in her text. I'm getting a new taste of works that I've read and loved (Wuthering Heights and Madame Bovary), works that I've read and disliked (Hemingway and Gravity's Rainbow) and works that I wouldn't have thought to pick up but now very much want to. This accounts for a great deal of the migrating pile.

Admittedly, I'm an academically inclined person who is developing my own skills as a writer, so it follows that I would find "Reading Like a Writer" to be completely facinating from a topical perspective. But even if I wasn't looking to have my thoughts provoked, I think that Francine Prose does it in such an engaging way that the process she outlines of reading closely and slowly, maybe even lovingly, would effect me regardless. It's a good thing to slow down, think about what you've read and not just scan for the plot. This is something I've gotten out of the habit of doing after months of marathon reading for my graduate oral exams. It's really nice to get Prose's refresher course and settle back into a richer reading experience than I've been able to enjoy for awhile.