Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Between Friends, Debbie Macomber

I have always thought that the phrase "women's fiction" was somehow a slight (or not so slight) put down of the kind of stories that women find enjoyable or meaningful.  While it is certainly not a universal fact that all women like to read stories about family, relationships, and friendships, it is certainly true that much of the fiction marketed to women as women's fiction is just that.  I have mixed feelings about the type of novel that is labeled "women's fiction".  Like any other genre, some is better written and more literary than others.  On the spectrum from serious literature to fluff, I find myself most comfortable on the more literary end.  The titles on the fluff end tend to feel a bit too much like a Lifetime Movie to me-trite, easy platitudes or oversimplified stories about complex issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, or family dynamics.

Sadly, my book club's November pick, Macomber's book Between Friends, falls a little too far to the fluff end for me.  The epistolary novel is tells the story of two women, wealthy Jillian and her poor friend Lesley, who become friends as children and maintain that friendship throughout the trials and tribulations of their lives.  While I don't have a problem with an epistolary novel in theory, in practice I find they often do more "telling" than "showing".  Telling a story through a series of letters and other documents relieves the author of the need to actually develop characters, evoke feeling through setting or events, or write intelligent, meaningful dialogue.  This book felt like a novel written in hearsay-there is little immediacy to the events, which I think takes away from any emotional impact.  

I was also disturbed by how stereotypical the characters lives were.   Lesley, the daughter of an abusive alcoholic, goes on to marry an abusive alcoholic after he gets her pregnant.  Because she is a devout Catholic, she stays with him "for the children", and refuses to use birth control, ending up with three more children before she finally decides enough is enough.  Jillian, the daughter of privilege, rebels in high school by falling in love with the gas jockey with a heart of gold-who just happens to get killed in Viet Nam, clearing the way for her to go on to the pricey private school and career as a lawyer that she was destined to have from the start.  I can't cite too many other examples, mostly because I couldn't finish reading the book, but suffice it to say that I was unimpressed.  One of the women in my book club reminded me that in the 1950s and 60s there were some women exactly like Lesley and Jillian.  My response to her was, "I can acknowledge that without wanting to read a hole book about it."

  My best friend has one other major complaint, which I share.  Somehow these two women from Washington state, one of whom has only a high school education and rarely leaves her hometown, are connected to every major event in American life for 50 years.  My friend called it "Forest Gump" syndrome, after that charming movie about mildly retarded Forest and his many brushes with greatness.  Difference is, on screen it worked.  In this book it just seems contrived.  All in all, I'm pretty sure I will not be reading a Debbie Macomber book again any time soon.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Book Lover's Dream-or Nightmare!

Here is but one of the many reasons that I love Stephen King as an author-who else would think to write a horror story about the Kindle, for the Kindle?  OK, I suppose it could seem a little gimmicky, but it works!

UR is a novella about Wesley Smith, an English professor at a mediocre college in a small town in Kentucky.  After a vicious fight with his girlfriend over his reading habits, he buys a Kindle out of spite.  Sure that his purchase will be a passing fad in his reading life, he begins searching for titles.  What he finds astonishes him-the Kindle seems to have access to alternate realities where his favorite authors lived longer, and wrote MORE BOOKS!  Or they died when they were "supposed" to, but wrote DIFFERENT BOOKS!  Seriously, what else could a reader ask for but hundreds of new titles in millions of alternate realities from their favorite authors?  You could do nothing else but read for the rest of your life and never get through all of them!  Which is exactly where I thought the story was going.  King does a good job with obsession-I thought that this would be a return to Needful Things.

But not only does the new Kindle let you download titles from alternate realities, it also lets you check out the New York Times, and the local news.  Difference is, with the local news, instead of getting alternate versions, you get the future of the reality you live in.  And what Wesley sees in his future is too terrible to contemplate.

This is King at his short story/novella best.  He sets the scene, develops a character seamlessly, and moves you right along.  I was so intrigued by the whole idea of the Ur alternates.  Of course, anyone familiar with King's Dark Tower series knows that the Ur references the various levels of the Tower, and I was not surprised when the low men showed up to punish Wes for his paradox infraction.  But you don't have to have read the 3600+ Dark Tower books to appreciate and enjoy UR.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Zoli, by Colum McCann

Colum McCann finds the world to be a dark, seedy place where nothing good can last.  At least, that's what I think he feels after reading or trying to read two of his books.  Last year I read Let the Great World Spin, as a part of my effort to read more male authors, and more literary fiction.  Reading that review now, I can see that my feelings on McCann's writing are very similar now, having tried unsuccessfully to read his novel Zoli.

Here is what Amazon has to say about the plot of Zoli,

 A unique love story, a tale of loss, a parable of Europe, this haunting novel is an examination of intimacy and betrayal in a community rarely captured so vibrantly in contemporary literature. 
Zoli Novotna, a young woman raised in the traveling Gypsy tradition, is a poet by accident as much as desire. As 1930s fascism spreads over Czechoslovakia, Zoli and her grandfather flee to join a clan of fellow Romani harpists. Sharpened by the world of books, which is often frowned upon in the Romani tradition, Zoli becomes the poster girl for a brave new world. As she shapes the ancient songs to her times, she finds her gift embraced by the Gypsy people and savored by a young English expatriate, Stephen Swann. 
But Zoli soon finds that when she falls she cannot fall halfway–neither in love nor in politics. While Zoli’s fame and poetic skills deepen, the ruling Communists begin to use her for their own favor. Cast out from her family, Zoli abandons her past to journey to the West, in a novel that spans the 20th century and travels the breadth of Europe.

Sounds like a sweeping tale of love and transcendence, doesn't it?  Instead, reading it felt like being sunk into a dark, bleak  world where even the most beautiful, innocent things were tainted by something cold and dreary.  At first I was drawn into the world of the Roma in eastern Europe during the early 20th century.  I knew that they had been persecuted, but I didn't know a lot about their traditions or culture.  But eventually I began to feel weighted down with all of the misery of the place.  I suppose that was probably purposeful on McCann's part.  After all, the Roma were persecuted, and we are talking about the start of the Soviet Union and the cruel grip of communism here.  But nothing, and I mean nothing, that I read seemed to speak to the transcendence of the human spirit.  Even the love story was bleak, and felt strangely unemotional.  It is not that I am adverse to reading melancholy, haunting, tragic books.  I read and loved The Road, and found the triumph of the father's love despite the complete destruction of the world to be meaningful, even if the events of the novel themselves were bleak.   A Thousand Splendid Suns is one of my favorite books, and it is undoubtedly tragic and heart-wrenching.  But even within the horror of living as a widow or a battered wife in Taliban Afghanistan, there were moments of tenderness, or beauty, or light.  Not so with McCann's books.

Maybe I am being slightly unfair, since I didn't finish the book.  Maybe the page after I finally gave up started a trend showing something, anything positive in the human experience.  Sadly, I couldn't take the unending dreariness long enough to find out.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Belgariad, by David Eddings

Earlier this fall I posted a review of Pawn of Prophecy, the first book in David Edding's fantasy epic The Begariad.  I enjoyed it a lot.  I think that it is high fantasy at its best.  It had the usual cast of characters-sorcerers, knights, princesses, and the like-but it was smart and engaging.  I also reviewed the second book in the series, Queen of Sorcery, which I thought was a very good next step in describing the quest to find the Orb of Aldur and defeat the evil god Torak.



I have since finished he entire cycle-including Magician's GambitCastle of Wizardry and Enchanter's End Game-and I am please to say that the epic story of Garion and his journey from scullery boy to King of Riva and champion of the west was every bit as fun and exciting as the first two books led me to believe.  Eddings did a great job creating characters that were at once universal archetypes of western literary fantasy and completely individual.  While there was never really any doubt of the outcome-this is a classic good v. evil story after all, and we all know how those come out-there were enough twists and turns to keep you guessing.

One of the frequent complaints about high fantasy is how sexist it can be.  The men are warriors, the women are witches or princesses.  Eddings addresses that issue head on, acknowledging in this male characters that those attitudes exists, but countering them with his female characters, who he shows to be every bit as resourceful, strong, and capable as his male characters.  Unlike Tolkien, who's female characters were very one dimensional, Eddings shows women to be an integral part of the world that he created, and each has her own strengths and foibles.  All in all The Belgariad is a fine example of good storytelling-gently flowing language, interesting turns of phrase, characters that are believable even when they are doing unbelievable things, and exciting action sequences that stir the blood and the heart.