Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Flight Behavior Barbara KingsolverBarbara Kingsolver is such a good writer that she can make you forget — or forgive — some pretty substantial problems in a novel. This is a good thing because Flight Behavior has several although it is still a book well worth reading.

Flight Behavior has a number of shortcomings, but these do not include its language or characters, which are solid, complex, persuasive, and satisfying.

The novel’s central character is Dellarobia Turnbow who like many Kingsolver characters is a woman with an intelligence, spirit, and sex drive too large for her circumstances. In Dellarobia’s case, these circumstances are a small Appalachian town, an ill-matched husband acquired through a high-school pregnancy, a small confining house with two young children, and subsistence farming on the land of her resentful in-laws.

As Flight Behavior opens, Dellarobia is set to destroy (and so escape) her marriage through a particularly reckless and desperate act of adultery. When she climbs up the wooded hills of her husband’s family’s land to meet her lover, she discovers the entire Monarch butterfly population of North America, which has settled for the winter in rural Tennessee rather than deep in Mexico, because of climate change. The vision of the butterflies turns Dellarobia around, literally and figuratively, and send her life in new and remarkable directions.

There is a great deal in Flight Behavior to enjoy and admire. Each of Kingsolver’s characters walk on to the page fully formed, convincing, and distinct: from Dellarobia’s husband Cub, to her best friend Dovey, to her family and the people in her church, to Dr. Ovid Byron, the lepidopterist who appears to study why the Monarchs have so radically changed the migration patterns hard-wired into their DNA. Kingsolver makes it easy to understand and empathize with her characters even when they aren’t necessarily likable. Her conversations are a pleasure to read. And she makes the emotional arc of Dellarobia’s story moving and real.

The problems in Flight Behavior come from its plot construction, which is a bit of a mess, and its “big themes” which are didactically over-emphasized to the extent that readers might feel the need to take notes in case there is a test at the end.

The plot problems begin with Dellarobia’s reaction to the butterflies, which she feels is some species of religious revelation, which causes confusion in Dellarobia and controversy in her church.  This is a fine and intriguing idea, and fair enough. The problem is that the religion angle fizzles out before we are a third of the way through Flight Behavior with no more explanation than Dellarobia and everyone just seemed to forget about it.

Another plot line that fizzles is Dellarobia’s romantic obsession with Ovid Byron that goes on for a tantalizingly long time before we discover it is the shaggiest of shaggy dog tales. Then for good measure, when we are in the home stretch, Kingsolver drops on us one of those shocking personal secrets that typically form the “big surprise” of 19th-century novels, only to have all the characters involved immediate disappear for the rest of the book, the surprise unexplored and unresolved. In a novel that clearly demonstrates its commitment to conventional plot architectures, these qualities can only be seen as flaws.

The biggest of Flight Behavior‘s big themes is global warming, which is not only disrupting the life cycles of the Monarch species but seemingly the weather of Dellarobia’s home as well, making the precarious economics of the Turnbow and neighboring farms more precarious still. Kingsolver clearly believes the globe is warming and human activity is a cause (as does the consensus of the scientific community and me too, by the by) but she pursues this theme through long conversations between Dellarobia and Ovid, which weaken the novel while having no impact what-so-ever on public opinion. The novel is weaker because Kingsolver’s management of the exposition is ham-handed and her talking points way too obvious. As for public opinion, climate-change deniers are thin on the ground among readers of literary fiction to begin with, and the few members of that choir who might be in need of a sermon on global warming are not going to be moved. Few things are less persuasive than a lecture. Particularly when your audience is captive and you had promised them a story not a seminar.

Kingsolver also has a reasonable amount to say about the conflicting world views, mutual misunderstanding, and reciprocal lack of respect between the religious, conservative, working-class (at best) residents of rural Tennessee and the wealthy, well-educated liberals who descend on Dellarobia’s home to study the butterflies, agitate to protect them, or use the Monarchs as an occasion to indulge their self-righteous narcissism. Like with her handling of climate change, the problem with this theme is that it is too often explored through explicit, long expository comments from Dellarobia. There’s nothing wrong with big ideas in novels, but big ideas in novels work best when they are implicit and handled with subtlety.

The good news is that there is so much good stuff going on in Flight Behavior, and Kingsolver’s talent is so mature and sturdy, that your pleasure will be only mildly diminished by the novel’s problems. And you’re likely to be impress by how well the book succeeds in spite of them.

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sherlock winsIn preparation for the American premiere of the third season of PBS’ Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons and reading the original stories and novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. And I’ve come to a conclusion. Sherlock is superior to its source material.

Explaining why I think Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ adaptations are better than Conan Doyle’s work is relatively easy. Deciding how much credit Moffat and Gatiss get for their success was more more tricky. In the end, however, I think Doyle gets most of it.

What Arthur Conan Doyle Did Right

What Conan Doyle did superbly right in his stories and novels is create the vivid, particular character of Sherlock Holmes, who deserves his enduring fascination and appeal.

I think this fascination springs first from the fact that Sherlock Holmes is a fully-formed literary character who is at the same time largely two dimensional (a quality he shares with the other characters in Conan Doyle’s stories, unfortunately).

The reason this contradiction succeeds so brilliantly is that Sherlock Holmes seems to be suffering from an autism-spectrum disorder, which explains his intellectual powers, his deep knowledge of arcane subjects, his passionate focus on problems that interest him, his inability to read social cues or manage social interactions (though indifference might be the cause), and in particular, the but-faint glimmers we get of Holmes’ interior life.

With most of the characters in Sherlock Holmes, we cannot penetrate beyond their surfaces because they have no character beyond their surfaces. With Holmes, his impenetrability is part of his essence; we don’t understand him well because Holmes is indifferent to such questions himself; and perhaps the greatest mystery of all in the stories is the nature of Sherlock Holmes’ soul.

Conan Doyle gets full marks for investing Holmes with extraordinary powers of observation, analysis, reasoning, and deduction, and for creating compelling examples of these qualities in action.

Finally, he gets credit for filling his stories with intriguing hints: the loneliness of John Watson after his return from the Afghanistan wars; the suggestion that Mycroft Holmes occasionally “is the British government”; and of course the huge dramatic potential found in the character of Professor Moriarty.

What Conan Doyle Did Not Do At All

The problem is that Conan Doyle often does too little with these characters, and frankly too little with many of the stories in the Holmes canon; and I keep thinking the problems rise from either Conan Doyle’s lack of skill as a writer or his lack of interest in the stories themselves.

A Study in Scarlet is a good example. All the good things about Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are right there, already in place, right out of the gate: the character of Sherlock Holmes most especially, his great intellectual powers, and an impressively worked-out mystery.

But then there are the problems. Holmes and Watson meet cute, and Holmes jumps right off the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, but the management of the beginning of their relationship feels perfunctory. Doyle needs Watson and Holmes to come together and so they do; and the most basic of Holmes-ian questions is not answered, namely “Why?”

Then it is hard to read A Study in Scarlett and without concluding that Doyle simply does not manage plots very well. The majority of the story is advanced through exposition and halfway through the novel, the telling is handed over to the murderer and the scene abruptly shifts to the American West, where begins the long and tedious explanation of the murderer’s motives which involve dastardly Mormon polygamists and the outrages they commit against an innocent girl. (I’m not making that up.) Holmes utterly disappears and it is Holmes that makes Doyle worth reading.

The Final Problem – the story that features Holmes’ famous death at the Reichenbach Falls – has related problems. Here we discover Moriarty and see the only time Holmes and his arch-nemesis meet face to face. Moriarty is interesting. The conversation between Moriarty and Holmes is interesting. Doyle makes the friendship between Holmes and Watson, as they flee Moriarty, feel convincing. But the great chess game of move and counter-move Holmes tells us he’s playing with Moriarty happens entirely off the page, and we get no hint of the details. Worse, the death of Holmes also happens off the page. All this material has huge potential. Conan Doyle, and his readers, just need someone to come along and exploit it.

That’s Where Moffat and Gatiss and Their “Sherlock” Comes In

Perhaps the reason Sherlock Holmes is so enduring in adaptation is precisely because Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material is so full of untapped possibility. In any case, along come Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss – the latest in a long succession of people to take on the job – and succeed brilliantly.

First, they add a layer of internal conflict to the stories by filling out the characters and making their emotions drive the stories as much as the criminal mysteries. Holmes isn’t a natural candidate for the role, but Watson with his war experience and manifest loneliness is.

Moffat and Gatiss bring that loneliness forward, use it to help us understand how the friendship between Watson and Holmes developed so quickly, and most importantly make Watson the main character of their stories and his friendship with Holmes the show’s great beating heart. (I should say that Martin Freeman gets equal credit for the success.) Doyle gave us stories that entertain and delight. Moffat and Gatiss make Sherlock move us as well.

They get even more out of their adaptation of Mycroft Holmes. They add the perfectly logical deduction of sibling conflict between Mycroft and Sherlock; give the brothers contrasting yet similarly cold temperaments; and follow-up on Conan Doyle’s hint that Mycroft “is the British government” and make him England’s spy-master which opens up a rich vein of new conflicts and stories to pursue.

The espionage thriller aspects of Sherlock work particularly well with the increased role Moriarty plays in these stories (an idea that long pre-dates Moffat and Gatiss of course). Moriarty runs a vast, shadowy international criminal conspiracy which in technique and operations is largely indistinguishable from a nation-state’s intelligence service or for that matter a terrorist group. All three run themselves in similar ways: it is their motives and goals that differ.

So Moffat and Gatiss use Mycroft and Moriarty to produce both long-arc conflicts, that is plots that arc through a season or several seasons and tie the whole show together, and as drivers within individual shows, which each have a beginning, middle, and satisfying end. (Well, except for the Hound of the Baskerville’s episode, to my tastes.) Watson plays a similar role, with the emotions of his character producing both long-arc and short-arc conflicts.

I like Moffat and Gatiss’ updating just fine too, although I suppose I can see the point of those people who think it is “gimmicky”.  But to set the stories in modern London, you really do have to lay aside Holmes’ dependence on tobacco and cocaine, and you really do have to add cell phones, the internet, and texting.

I also like the “flashy” or “showy” editing, when the scene goes slow-motion and text labels and assorted graphics fly across the screen to illustrate Holmes’ thoughts. These are gimmicks. But they also solve the problem of having Watson ask, “My god, Holmes, how did you figure that out?” and Holmes saying “Elementary, my dear Watson ….” I think we all have had enough of that, haven’t we?

Then there is the running joke about Holmes and Watson being gay. On the one hand, I confess to thinking it is sort of funny. On the other, I’m beginning to think that cheerful jokes about homosexuality are as reactionary as the homophobia still rampant in America and elsewhere. After all, on the most essential level, it should be irrelevant whether Watson and Holmes are or aren’t gay. What is essential is that they care for each other.

Maybe the most interesting question of all is “Why does Sherlock Holmes continue to be so popular?” There must be something about the character that resonates deep in the culture. I have no answer, currently. Maybe after I watch Season 3 I will. Can’t wait to start!

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to hack or not to hack

To hack or not to hack, that is the question.

An article in the New York Times last month describes several start-up companies whose goals are “to do for books what Netflix did for movies and Spotify for music.”

As an incentive for authors and publishers to add their work to these online collections, the companies promise to deliver insights into reader behavior: how many finished the books or skipped to the end, which passages readers lingered over and which they skimmed, and so on.

The article goes on to question the viability of the business model, and quotes one writer who is both interested in seeing this reader data and worried that it might reduce her creativity or her willingness to take risks.

All in all, “E-Books are Reading You” was a good article. Thoroughly reported. Balanced in its considerations. And temperate.

This is more than I can say for the Letters to the Editors selected by the Times to publish in response to the article, under the headline “Writers Desperately Seeking Readers,” which are as neat a collection of vanity, arrogance, contempt, elitism, and reductionist thinking as you are likely to find on a mere one-eighth of a standard broadsheet.

From this description, you might think I didn’t like these letters. But I did. Because they encapsulate so many of things I find wrong with writers.

I’m not going to out the authors of these letters – they are quite easily found through Google with the information I’ve provided anyhow – I’ll simply provide my response to what they wrote. To wit:

Art is a supremely individual expression.

Yes, I agree with that.

It doesn’t ask permission; it doesn’t take an exit poll and adjust accordingly.

It doesn’t? You mean no artist has ever taken an audience’s reaction into account? How about the opinions of mentors, other artists, editors, agents, critics, friends, spouses, or lovers? Where does acting on feedback end and pandering begin? Or does the definition depend on the status of who is giving the feedback?

Artists say what they know … they have no choice in the matter.

Yes, I agree with that too. Unfortunately.

And it’s our privilege to be brought into their world.

Our privilege? I would like to decide for myself whether entering that world is a “privilege”. Many times it is. However, from my experience, when someone declares that my attention to their work is a “privilege” this is often a sign that it ain’t. In any case, I think an audience’s attention to a work of art is also a “privilege” that is earned by the artist, rather than something that is his or her natural right. Or something to be demanded in a fantasy-fascist world where the artist, self-proclaimed or otherwise, rules as a cult-of-personality dictator.

Once artists start asking how many “likes” they’ve garnered, or listening to customer-satisfaction surveys to increase their sales, they’re no longer making art: they’re moving product.

Okay, here we go. Did Shakespeare move “product”? Because we have a fair amount of evidence that he did, from his output and popularity, to his becoming one of the owners of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to the records of his investments and property purchases including New Place in Stratford. Will didn’t start rich. But he ended up that way. And he did so while becoming, as it turns out, the immortal genius of literature in English.

Then we have the famous Robert Greene, who seems – with some scholarly doubt, but not too much — to be referring to Shakespeare in his comment about “an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers … [who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.”

I have two points to make here. The first is that earning money from art, and earning it through popular success, is in no way incompatible with the highest artistic achievement; and the examples of this are so numerous and so decisive you would think there would be no need to have the discussion. Dickens. Bob Dylan. Heck, even Nabokov. I bet you can name plenty of your own. All these guys made serious coin. But not one of them ever once considered the satisfaction of their “customers”? (Well, I’ll give you Nabokov.) No real artist ever once bent to a requirement of a pope with gold or a publisher who could pay or to what people or a patron seemed to like? They never once took a commission? Really? Hum.

The second point is that a great number of the attitudes I’m spanking the hell out of here, possibly to my peril, are not really about art. They are about the vanity of people who want to be seen as artists and who jealously guard the elevated social status that perception confers.

This is where Greene comes in to play. Greene was a university-educated playwright who clearly believed Shakespeare was infringing on his turf. Where is Greene’s work now? Or consider where the reputation of Shakespeare’s two long “art” poems sit compared to his plays.

Another way to say it is that the intention to create art is no guarantee of artistic success just as the intention to please an audience is no guarantee of artistic failure. And these are just two of the many complex factors, complexly interacting, that actually drive the act of creation.

Writers such as these could be described as ‘tech savvy’ or known by an adjective that predates the digital age: hacks.

A variation on the theme here, but a couple points. First is the idea that a “hack” appears to be someone who acts on aggregate feedback from a large audience. The author of this letter describes himself as an editor. I assume that if a writer listens to his editorial feedback, he does not think this makes the writer a hack. But if so, I would like to know the reasons why acting on his advice is not pandering too.

Hovering around the fringes of these letters are two relevant ideas. The first is the genre fiction / literary fiction divide, in which the former is characterized by the low-quality pursuit of money and the latter by the high-quality pursuit of art. The second is that the categories are absolute. You are either Fifty Shades of Grey or you are The Waves; you are either a hack or you are not; you either listen to everybody or you listen to nobody but your own genius muse.

But there is actually a wide spectrum between these two poles and different artists, and different works by the same artist, fall all over the place between them. Some work that is perceived to pursue popularity and profit turns out to be art (Shakespeare again). Some work that is perceived to be art sinks into rightful oblivion. Some art is art and some crap is crap. Then there is a whole lot of mediocrity muddling around in the middle. It’s all incredibly hard to categorize, and the best we can do is begin with individual reactions to individual works.

I’d like to think that valuing integrity over popularity is fundamental to … writing books.

Ah, the idealism of youth (the writer identifies himself as 19). Actually, he seems like a nice fellow and I have no desire to criticize him. But question. Are integrity and popularity mutually exclusive?

Because by now, you know I don’t think they are and that most books are built, in part, from some combination of integrity and popularity: or if you will, the amount of work the reader performs to approach the author versus the amount of work the author performs to approach the reader. Also, popularity we can measure in all sorts of ways. How do we measure integrity?

Let’s keep going. Is integrity founded on intention or results? Let’s say for example – I don’t know this, but give it to me as a “for instance” – that E.L. James intended to write a good / high quality / literary book but her talent wasn’t up to the task of producing anything other than Fifty Shades of Grey. Does that mean the novel has integrity?

If Joyce wrote Ulysses in cynical bad faith, does that mean we should reject the book? And if Jonathan Livingston Seagull was written with total sincerity – which would make it even scarier in my opinion, but anyhow – does that mean we should embrace it?

In the end, I suppose I’m saying that it is the work that matters. The work is certainly much easier to access compared to the artist’s good or bad faith, in any case.

Well, that about wraps it up. Hope you have a good day. Now I have to get back to reading Count Fabio and the Sexy Pirate Queens on my Kindle. I’m skipping the dull parts.

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the littlest angel charles tazewell“The Littlest Angel” is a great book. Not because it is actually great as in “very good.” But because it combines a deep (and I would say offensively manipulative) sentimentality with a deeply subversive take on Christian theology which makes it a genuinely strange book pretending to be merely a nice one.

I’ll give you my reasons why I think this in a moment. But first, in case you don’t know the story, here is the set-up.

“The Littlest Angel” is a children’s story written in 1946 by Charles Tazewell which follows heaven’s littlest angel, who can’t sing on key or arrive on time or keep his halo on straight or fly without tumbling through the air.

One day, he’s summoned to speak with the Understanding Angel and the Littlest Angel explains there was nothing for a small angel to do in heaven and he was homesick for earth. The Understanding Angel asks “what would make him most happy in Paradise” and the Littlest Angel asks for a box he’d left under his bed at home. He’s given the box and the Littlest Angel becomes a model citizen of heaven.

Sometime later, God announces that Jesus would soon be born in Bethlehem and every angel in heaven prepares a gift. After thinking and thinking, the Littlest Angel decides what the infant Jesus would like best is his box from home. The Littlest Angel gives his gift proudly, but grows ashamed of the “small, rough, unsightly box” filled with “useless things” compared to “all those other glorious gifts” just as God reaches out his hand to the box.

It is at this point in the story that I begin crying. Every single damn time.

Well, I don’t actually cry. I just become physically unable to speak. Which was a problem when I was supposed to be reading “The Littlest Angel” to my children. It went like this:

Younger son: “Mommy! Daddy’s making those funny faces and not reading the story.”

Wife [walking into the room]: “Again?”

Me: “Just finish the book and leave me alone.”

So what is in the box? Tazewell tells us …

A butterfly with golden wings, captured one bright summer day on the hills above Jerusalem, and a sky-blue egg from a bird’s nest in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door. Yes, and two white stones, found on a muddy river bank, where he and his friends had played like small brown beavers, and, at the bottom of the box, a limp, tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who had died as he had lived, in absolute and infinite devotion.

Then “The Littlest Angel” gets very particular, by which I mean it flirts with heresy, because Tazewell has God say this about the box:

This small box pleases Me most. Its contents are of the Earth and of men, and My Son is born to be King of both. These are the things My Son, too, will know and love and cherish and then, regretful, will leave behind Him.

What I like about the story is that Tazewell suggests with the contents of the Littlest Angel’s box that the glories of life, consciousness, and creation are expressed mostly fully in the smallest things. Then Tazewell says explicitly God values these things; and not only values them, but states his son Jesus will regret leaving them behind as the Littlest Angel did.

Normally, we understand the purpose of the incarnation of Christ to be the redemption of sin through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, motivated by his and his father’s love for humanity, and the earth a poor miserable place compared with heaven. In Tazewell’s story, the emphasis is on the incarnation as an act of radical empathy, with Jesus embracing the suffering AND the joy of human life, and sin shuffled off to one side, which frankly is where I think it belongs. Original sin has always struck me as the equivalent of God breaking our legs so sometime later he could claim credit for resetting the bones.

All this sounds good enough, but the problems with “The Littlest Angel” are larger than its virtues. First, we have the issue that the pathos of the story is founded on the death of a child, which is difficult to manage without making the reader feel cheaply manipulated, and this is exactly what Tazewell does. I do feel manipulated and the fact that Tazewell’s manipulation works on me only increases my resentment.

Second, “The Littlest Angel” is a frequently toxic combination of the cloying and the fascist – which is to say it is sentimental. Sentimentality is a big cartoonish emotion, equally useful in provoking copious weeping or torch-lit rallies, and sweetishly easy to gobble down.

Think of sentimentality as a big piece of Coca Cola cake (search the recipe, it’s delicious) versus the beef steak, wheat berries, bitter greens, and red wine of the real thing.

“The Littlest Angel” is lousy with sentimentality as I think you can tell from the way Tazewell describes the contents of the box. And it gets worse in the Children’s Press, Chicago copy the littlest angel sergio leoneI have which features the 1962 illustrations by Sergio Leone (same name, not the film director). Check out the little guy:

He’s an avatar of Aryan cuteness in blue footie pajamas which is particularly galling since Tazewell tells us the Littlest Angel died in Jerusalem before the birth of Christ. Do you think there were a lot of radiantly blond, blue-eyed little tykes running around Jerusalem in footie pajamas circa 10 BCE? You do? Okay, I won’t argue, but you clearly have come to the wrong shop.

Also while we are at it, not to be overly picky, but if the Littlest Angel died before Christ’s incarnation on earth — and we know he did because the gift of which the Littlest Angel is ashamed is for the baby Jesus — then what the hell (excuse my language) is the Littlest Angel doing in heaven?  Because he ain’t supposed to be there. If you accept that salvation is achieved through Christ alone, and Jesus’ sacrifice redeemed us from and only Jesus’ sacrifice could redeem us from Original Sin, then the Littlest Angel should be burning in hell fire. At least that explains why the Littlest Angel doesn’t have any relatives to keep him company in heaven. They are all in the other place.

Now where was I? Oh yes. Somewhere in “The Littlest Angel” is a story worth telling. Maybe I’ll take a whack at a revisionist version some day. Or maybe I’ll just it tuck away for when my children have children and let them decide what they think of it for themselves. In either case, I’m keeping my copy.

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Neil Gaiman NeverwhereIf the task of the fantasy novel is to create an engaging new world and tell an absorbing story in it, then Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere delivers the goods just fine. If it is do more than these, then Neverwhere comes up a bit short.

Neverwhere is primarily the story of Richard Mayhew, a pleasant but vague financial analyst in the modern City of London (or “London Above”), and the Lady Door, a member of the aristocracy of “London Below” which is a realm of fantastical or historic persons and places below the city tied together by the London Underground.

Richard finds Door lying injured on a city street and is soon drawn into her desperate attempt to flee the killers who murdered the rest of her family while simultaneously seeking to understand the reason why her family was murdered.

Along the way, we’re introduced to a satisfying number of delights. These include the murderous Misters Croup and Vandemar, a Dickensian pair straight out of nightmare; the Floating Market where all the contending citizens of London Below gather under a general truce to plot, trade, and revel; a large group of colorful supporting players; and the angel Islington who is still mourning its failure to save the people of Atlantis from destruction.

Gaiman’s invention is not endless, however. His plot has just enough twists to keep the story in pleasant motion. Gaiman often reaches for the word or phrase you’d expect, to the extent that I was often completing his sentences in my mind as he did on the page. His Angel Islington and Richard’s snobby rich girlfriend come straight from central casting. And at best, his characters have just enough distinct qualities to be sufficient for the story – which is to say they have two.

So the young lady Door is waif-like yet resolute. The Marquis de Carabras is amoral but scrupulous in the paying of his debts. The Black Friars are kind but a touch sinister. Most particularly, and not successfully, Richard Mayhew is hapless and heroic.

Mayhew is mostly paralyzed by fear and protected by the other characters out of pity, except for a few moments when he rises to a challenge that has defeated scores of men and women from London Below over the course of centuries. One challenge is the dread “ordeal” and the other is the great “Beast of London” which lurks in a labyrinth. Neither of these victories seems probable and Gaiman makes them less so by frequently playing Mayhew’s character for laughs.

This gets at my two disappointments with Neverwhere, which I had expected to like better based on Neil Gaiman’s reputation. The first is that none of the characters were sufficiently developed that I could feel an emotion toward them and so feel that something was at stake while reading Neverwhere; and what should be at stake in reading is our hearts. Mine was never engaged.

Secondly, what binds a fictional world together and makes it breathe, whether it is utterly fantastical or obsessively mundane, is its emotional tone: how the author feels about the world he or she has created. I don’t think Gaiman ever decided how he felt. Instead, he has the ha-ha mostly feckless Richard Mayhew stumbling around a story that is threatening and apocalyptic. This makes Neverwhere entertaining for sure. But it doesn’t make it anything more.

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cropped-pgm-photo-02.jpgOn Thursday, the journal Science published a study (Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind) that found people scored better on tests measuring empathy, social perceptiveness, and emotional intelligence after they had read literary fiction than after they had read popular fiction or rigorous non-fiction.

This result cheered members of the literary community and confirmed an idea that I’ve long argued using anecdotal evidence, which is one of the most important functions of literature is to strengthen emotional intelligence.

This function also explains why literature is the only art included in core educational curriculums. The ability to accurately read the feelings of other people is perhaps the most essential skill for living in social groups, and living in well functioning social groups is one of our key adaptations as a species.

So all this is good news — which I greeted with considerable apprehension and unease.

Part of my unease comes from having observed that people who read literature don’t go about the business of becoming better people as often as they go about the business of bragging how they are better people because they read literature.

The Science study is likely to encourage the bragging folks to keep bragging about their exceptionalism; and exceptionalism is fundamentally at odds with the work of empathy, because exceptionalism encourages you to see yourself as different from others while empathy encourages you to see yourself as the same.

The Science study is also likely to reinforce certain class divisions that run right through the middle of literary reading, in which appreciation for literature is used to signal your membership in a high economic status group (ie, rich people read Shakespeare) or in a high social status group (ie, Bohemians read difficult or experimental fiction).

The use of literature as a signal of status is particularly pernicious because it actively works against the whole purpose of reading books, which is … reading books.

Instead, the status-signal readers are interested in reading “classes” of books. They read “literary” fiction not “genre” fiction or “popular” fiction, and so they look for books that conform in obvious and expected ways to these classes, in order to embrace them or reject them — even before they read them (if they ever read them).

In this world, “literary” is a synonym for “quality” and “genre” a synonym for “trash”. The problem with this is that a great deal of tedious, uninspired, self-important, plodding work is praised and a great deal of inspired, insightful, subversive work is ignored.

Now telling the difference between the two can be fiendishly difficult, especially because a truly original book is often indistinguishable from a hot mess on first encounter.

But it is the encounter that is essential: the active, engaged conversation between book and reader.

If the results of the Science study encourage more of this, all to the good. If the study just encourages more sniffing at cocktails parties, then the world will roll on much the same as before.

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The twenty-one novels in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series are the greatest sustained work of English-language fiction written in the 20th century for the high craft of their characters, story lines, language, and themes, for the breadth of their erudition, and for the sheer stamina of O’Brian’s invention.

The series follows Jack Aubrey, a fighting captain in the British Navy, and his particular friend, Stephen Maturin, naturalist, naval surgeon, and intelligence officer, as they fight in the Napoleonic wars as well as the War of 1812.

The series begins with superlative novels that include the books in my best of O’Brian list below. Then, like the happiest of long-running marriages, the Aubrey-Maturin novels take a modest step down to the level of very good indeed; with my metaphorical marriage encompassing not only Jack and Stephen’s monumental friendship, but more importantly, the great devotion of O’Brian and his readers to each other.

I’ve listed my five personal favorites, ranked in order of admiration, with notes and some spoilers. (I’ve included a complete list of the Aubrey-Maturin novels below these reviews for convenience.)

Post Captain (1972)

Post Captain - a best Aubrey-Maturin novel by O'BrianPatrick O’Brian’s magnificent sophomore work is the crown jewel of the series. The novel begins with O’Brian in full Jane Austen mode, following a young Jack Aubrey with prize money in his pocket and time on his hands because of an unfortunate lull in the Napoleonic wars, as he pursues his eventual wife, Sophie Williams.

Soon, fighting breaks out again but more significantly, Jack and Stephen’s friendship breaks down over a second woman (Stephen’s eventual wife, Diana Villiers) and they challenge each other to a duel. This is the only time in the series when the enduring friendship between the Aubrey and Maturin is shaken, and it makes for some of the most difficult and moving reading in the novels.

In Post Captain, O’Brian’s skill at writing complex, lucid, and compelling battle scenes emerges in all its glory, as does his humor, most especially when Jack is forced to escape suddenly hostile French territory by disguising himself as a dancing bear.

Unlike many of the later novels in the Aubrey-Maturin series, which don’t end as much as they simply stop, Post Captain concludes with a bang.

O’Brian places Jack in command of one of the four British ships that famously captured a Spanish treasure fleet bringing gold back from the New World to finance Spain’s entry into the war against England. Stephen, in his emerging role as an indispensable intelligence officer for the British, gathers the information that makes the capture possible.

HMS Surprise (1973)

hms surprise best aubrey maturin obrianIn HMS Surprise, the pace is faster, the action more exciting, the stakes higher, and the plot architecture tighter than in Post Captain, which it immediately follows in the series’ sequence.

For my money, HMS Surprise features the best set-piece in the entire series: Jack’s brilliant and daring rescue of Stephen, who has been captured as a spy by the French and is being tortured in the town of Port Mahon on one of the Balearic Islands. This is also the moment when the friendship between Jack and Stephen becomes stronger than death, and so the great and enduring heart of the Aubrey-Maturin novels begins to beat.

In HMS Surprise, both Jack and Stephen face down significant rivals. For Jack, it is the French Admiral Linois, who defeated him in the series’ first book, Master and Commander. For Stephen, it is a new contender for Diana’s affections, who he challenges to a duel that leads to another of the series’ most famous sequences, in which Stephen performs surgery on himself.

Finally, HMS Surprise launches two more of the novels’ great elements. The first is the theme of marriage’s problematic nature, as Jack looks forward to bliss with Sophie in the book’s final lines (Jack predicts the future will be “pure paradise”). The second is exotic locales. India features prominently in HMS Surprise, and future novels will take Jack and Stephen all around the world.

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Fortune of War - a best Aubrey Maturin novel O'BrianJack and Stephen are equal as friends, but Jack is more often the agent of action in the novels, partially because he is the captain of the frigates on which Stephen serves and partially because his appalling bad judgment in nearly every aspect of his life except as frigate captain is always getting him into trouble.

The Fortune of War is the single book in the Aubrey-Maturin series that truly belongs to Stephen. In it, he and Jack have been captured by the Americans during the war of 1812. Both are taken to Boston, where a severely wounded Jack is held prisoner, but Stephen walks about with considerable freedom, since the Americans believe him to be just a naval surgeon rather than a British agent.

French agents, also in Boston, know better however, and they engage Stephen in a deadly game of cat and mouse which transforms The Fortune of War into the series’ only true spy-thriller. Thrown in the mix are Diana Villiers, that brilliant complicator of Stephen’s life, and a hair’s breadth escape that wraps up the novel nicely.

Also in The Fortune of War, O’Brian brings the double nature of Stephen Maturin into sharp focus. In the novels to this point, we’ve known Stephen as an accomplished naturalist, a committed physician, and a talented spy – but only had hints of his deadly ruthlessness. Here, Stephen kills without hesitation or regret when driven by circumstances, and O’Brian creates another contrast with his great friend, Jack Aubrey.

Jack as a naval officer is personally responsible for far more deaths than Stephen, but Jack cheerfully regards war as the world’s greatest professional sport. The rewards are immense, the rules complicated and subtle, losing often deadly, but the players feel little actual animosity for their opponents as long as they adhere to the laws of the game. In Stephen’s war, there are no rules, the killing is vicious and personal, and grudges extend beyond declarations of peace. Another way to say it, of the two men, it is Stephen who has the soul of a killer.

The Far Side of the World (1984)

far side world best aubrey maturingAs the Aubrey-Maturin series progresses, the plots of the books become less discrete and the arcs of the stories flatten; so the novels transform into one continuous narrative that blossoms with asides, digressions, false starts, storms and accidents, sudden reversals, changes of mission caused by the whims of Jack’s superiors or shifting geopolitics, and the messy complexity of the characters most of all.

The Far Side of the World is a particularly rich example of these qualities. In the novel, Jack is sent in the HMS Surprise to prevent an American frigate from attacking British whalers in the South Seas, and almost nothing goes right. He is significantly delayed by a lightning storm off the coast of Brazil that damages his ship and requires significant repairs, which allows the Americans to slip into the Pacific and strike the whalers. Later, a typhoon nearly wreaks Jack’s frigate and destroys the American ship for him. The crew is unhappy with an aging, incompetent midshipman who they believe is back luck. Stephen is entangled in political intrigue while reveling in his opportunities to collect scientific specimens. And much more.

There is something existential in all this chaos, and without suggesting that O’Brian intended to write a philosophical novel – he has entirely too much sense and talent as an artist to bother with such stuff – the total vision of The Far Side of the World delivers exactly that.

Desolation Island (1978)

desolation island best aubrey maturin o'brianIf The Far Side of the World flirted with existentialism, Desolation Islands walks right up to this dreary philosophy and gives it a big wet kiss.

Jack accepts the command of the Leopard, an aging ship barely fit to navigate the English Channel, in a mission to transport prisoners to Australia. These prisoners attack and murder some of their guards. The ship is stuck in the doldrums and battered by storms. An epidemic kills most of the prisoners and much of the crew. The Leopard is chased and nearly destroyed by a vastly more powerful Dutch ship of the line. An iceberg damages the Leopard so severely that Jack makes a desperate landing on Desolation Island (one of many in the world at that time) where they are at risk of being marooned permanently.

Desolation Island contains two of my favorite extended set pieces. The first is the Dutch ship’s pursuit of the Leopard, which takes place in the Roaring Forties, where the waves are mountainous and O’Brian’s powers of description are superb. The second is the crew’s extended stay on the cold, bleak island of the novel’s title – which Stephen regards as a natural philosopher’s paradise he is in no hurry to leave. This is an example of O’Brian’s humor, of course. But it also suggests that joy and wonder can be found any place, if you just know how to look for it.

Complete List of Aubrey-Maturin Novels by Patrick O’Brian

Master and Commander (1970)

Post Captain (1972)

HMS Surprise (1973)

The Mauritius Command (1977)

Desolation Island (1978)

The Fortune of War (1979)

The Surgeon’s Mate (1980)

The Ionian Mission (1981)

Treason’s Harbour (1983)

The Far Side of the World (1984)

The Reverse of the Medal (1986)

The Letter of Marque (1988)

The Thirteen Gun Salute (1989)

The Nutmeg of Consolation (1991)

Clarissa Oakes or The Truelove (1992)

The Wine-Dark Sea (1993)

The Commodore (1995)

The Yellow Admiral (1996)

The Hundred Days (1998)

Blue at the Mizzen (1999)

Glossary of Nautical Terms

The Gunroom of the HMS Surprise site has a good glossary of nautical terms that come from the “Dictionary of Sea Terms” by R.H. Dana Jr., author of “Two Years Before the Mast.” These are particularly useful to new readers of the O’Brian series but helpful to everyone. Also useful is this openstax page on the principal parts and sails of 19th century ships.

Nautical Terms That Have Become Idiomatic

Idioms are phrases whose “figurative meaning is different from the literal meaning,” as the The Oxford companion to the English language nicely puts it. The OED online says idioms are “a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light).”

Once you start reading Patrick O’Brian, you begin to realize just how may idioms in English derive from sailing ships. For example, a “loose cannon” is a wild unpredictable person liable to cause harm. This idiom comes from the guns of sailing ships which were mounted on wheeled carriages that absorbed the recoil and allowed the gun to be drawn inside the vessel for reloading. The guns and their carriages could easily weigh 3,000 pounds, and they were secured by heavy ropes. When a gun and its carriage got loose from its ropes, it could roll all over the deck from the motion of the ship injuring or killing men. Worse, the gun could plunge down a hatch and straight through the bottom of the hull, causing the ship to rapidly sink. The CrewSeekers website has an excellent list of idioms that come from sailing ships.

Tacking and Wearing a Sailing Ship

O’Brian describes the mechanics of sailing his ships in detail. This video of the Star of India shows what’s involved in tacking and wearing a sailing ship. In both tacking and wearing, the crew puts the ship about so the wind is shifted from one side of the vessel to the other. In tacking, the bow of the ship is turned through the wind. In wearing, the stern of the ship is turned. Tacking is the more difficult manuever because the crew is turning the ship into the wind while wearing involves turning the ship downwind.

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sookie stackhouse novels harrisIf the perfect beach book (1) offers a likeable heroine (2) tells stories about problems you don’t have, (3) is smart but not taxing, and (4) contains enough sex to make up for the fact you can’t have any since you a sharing a motel room with your kids – then Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels, including the recently published Dead Ever After, are pretty good choices.

Certainly, Ms. Harris has earned her success with the character of Sookie Stackhouse, a telepathic barmaid living among vampires, werewolves, witches, fairies, and just-folks humans in the small Northern Louisiana town of Bon Temps.

Much of Sookie’s appeal comes from the fact that she is a normal person. Every day, she gets up and works an unglamorous job. She shops for food, buys gas, cleans her house, and watches TV. At night, she says her prayers. On Sunday mornings, she goes to the local Methodist church. Sookie tries to look after her hard-working but sexually reckless brother. Most of the time, she wonders if she’s done right or not.

Sookie is also appealing because her strength comes from her character, not her paranormal abilities. In almost every fight with a supernatural being – and with many normal humans – Sookie is overmatched, but she will fight all the same if forced, rather than surrender. Sookie also has great courage. She will put herself in danger to help a friend or a person to whom she feels obligated. She will act on principle when it’s against her own self-interest. And she can make hard decisions when her good sense tells her she has to make them.

Another quality of Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels is their social commentary. The books are occupied with how society treats people who are different, and you don’t have to look hard to see the parallels between the vampires in Harris’ novel and homosexuals (and others outside sexual, gender, and lifestyle norms) in our own.

The supernatural can also be seen as the outward manifestation of interior psychology in the novels. Sookie dates vampires and werewolves, which is another way of saying she goes out with no-good men who are blood-suckers and animals, while ignoring the romantic possibilities with her dependable boss Sam, a shape shifter who likes to take the form of a collie.

Sookie’s mind-reading power functions in a similar way. Her telepathy is really the magical extension of her natural intelligence and perceptiveness, qualities that can make a woman living in a small town “different” or “odd” to many of the people around her.

None of these parallels should be taken too far. Harris does not invest every character or story with a deeper meaning. Or put another way, with a nod toward Freud’s famous observation, sometimes a vampire is just a vampire in the Sookie Stackhouse books.

Charlaine Harris is not a great prose stylist, but her writing demonstrates craft, and Harris conveys the sound of Sookie’s voice – and particularly her sense of humor – very effectively.

Her plot architecture is another matter, however. Many of the books are constructed around a series of loosely related incidents, rather than a unified story that has an arc and momentum. The mystery elements of her stories are often thin and feel perfunctory. Her plots seldom twist. And as the series has stretched on, it has become more and more of a soap opera.

This is not such a bad thing for beach books, however, and it means that you can read the series in any order. So try a couple if you discover you just can’t read Woolf’s The Waves while the ocean crashes and the seagulls cry and your neighbors the next umbrella over are blasting Bon Jovi. I couldn’t.

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amazon is the devil?When a federal judge ruled that Apple was guilty of conspiring to fix the price of eBooks last week, the lamentations began.

Commentators declared this would lead to the destruction of the traditional publishers and the ascendance of Amazon as a monopolistic hegemon, which would use its vast market powers to homogenize and commoditize our reading culture. Also, frogs would rain down from the sky.

But I don’t think any such thing will happen. (Well, the frogs might.) Here’s why.

The Traditional Publishing Model Is Not Essential to Reading Culture

The traditional publishers think they are essential to reading culture because they were essential in the past and because (I’m quite sure) they are sincerely devoted to their craft.

But the only two actors who are essential to reading culture are writers and readers.  Publishers are … or were … a necessary intermediary between the writer and reader, back when printing books and getting them into the hands of readers were complicated, expensive operations.

Now these tasks aren’t necessarily complicated or expensive. There are plenty of new ways, many more than before, for writers and readers to connect. And as long as you have writers and readers, you’ll have a reading culture. Before I discuss why, however, let me make a semi-related point.

Good Books Have Always Been Bad Business

This is not to say you can’t make money from serious books or serious literature. You can. The problem is you can’t make enough money consistently to turn the proposition into a sustainable business.

This leaves publishers with two choices. The first is you have a huge company in which the blockbusters in popular genres subsidize the “serious” books. For publically traded companies, this is the only option because they will be punished by the markets if they lose money.

The second is you have a small company, privately held, in which the owners see themselves as patrons of and missionaries for writers as much as they see themselves as business people, and their financial goals don’t extend too much beyond avoiding bankruptcy.

The recent obituary for Arthur Rosenthal of Basic Books described this dynamic nicely when it said he “let his taste in nonfiction and his quasi indifference to profit margins guide him as a publisher”.

Now Amazon is making the lives of people who work within the huge company model a living hell. But it is making the small company model so easy that anyone with a computer and internet access can become a publisher.

Writers of Serious Books Are Adapting. Amazon Is Helping Them Do It

One of the assumptions in much of the recent wailing over Amazon’s victory is that only serious books are real books and only serious publishers are real publishers.

No one was fretting that the Dan Browns of the world would disappear because they knew they wouldn’t.  A hegemon Amazon would still publish Dan Brown because he makes a lot of money.

The commentators did worry that a hegemon Amazon would ignore the serious, unprofitable books. Well, maybe. But maybe not.  Amazon has demonstrated an almost pathological indifference to earning a profit over the years.  This would make them a perfect publisher for the Virginia Woolfs of the world. And perhaps they would like the prestige of a having such writers under their imprint?

But if not, Amazon has given writers the tools to directly publish and promote their own books. Amazon’s print-on-demand model allows small publishing companies to produce print books with very low overhead costs. Kindle Direct allows people to publish eBooks at basically no cost.

Everyone has a chance. Including the serious writers and important voices who are getting overlooked right now by those old gatekeepers of the reading culture, the traditional publishers.

The Government Doesn’t Just Punish Price Fixing. It Also Punishes Monopolies

Finally, remember that it is not only illegal to fix prices. It’s also illegal — not to become a monopoly, as it turns out talking to my FTC lawyer friend — but to use monopoly power to stifle competition. And the government departments that are aiding Amazon by ruling against Apple, so some people claim, are the same departments that would force Amazon to change its business practices or break up if it did.

We can’t risk that harm, you say? Well, under the legal system of the United States, you generally can’t punish companies because you think they will break the law. You have to wait until they actually do.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to seize the new opportunities. They’re good fun. And you might make some art, or some cash, too.

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What’s the difference between an innovation and a gimmick in literature? An innovation expands the author’s vision while a gimmick tries to hide his lack of one. You’ll find excellent examples of both in George Saunders’ recent short story collection, Tenth of December.

When Saunders is good in this volume, he is very good indeed, and the elements he uses frequently throughout Tenth of December work well together to create resonant stories. These elements include …

  • language that is faulty or inadequate, usually because the narrative voice belongs to a person with whom Saunders has not shared his gifts as a writer.
  • characters who are teetering on the edge of economic / social / psychological / personal failure confronting other characters who enjoy extraordinary success (no one seems to occupy the middle ground).
  • the motif of fictional pharmaceuticals that can regulate every human characteristic.
  • strong satiric impulses balanced by great empathy for his characters.

tenth of december george saundersOne of the best stories in Tenth of December is “Escape from Spiderhead” in which Saunders slowly reveals to us that the narrator is being used as an unwilling test subject for powerful drugs because he has been convicted of murder. Here words are deformed by bureaucrats and scientists, who use technical language to obscure the horror of their actions, and Saunders deploys his innovative premise to deliver a knock-out meditation on free will, regret, and redemption.

Another excellent story is “Victory Lap” which tells the anxiety-provoking tale of a high school girl, the middle-aged man who attempts to kidnap her, and a high school boy who intervenes.  Saunders nails the voices of all three characters. The kidnapper narrates the pathetic execution of his pathetic fantasy to perfection, but it is the teenagers who really shine. Their words grasp at ideas and emotions without quite seizing hold of them, and you get the sense in the end that Saunders intends the triteness of their language to be a deliberate defense against the fear they experienced.

In these examples, the innovations – the science-fiction premise of “Spiderhead”, the conspicuously stylized narration of “Victory Lap” – work with the other elements to create stories that capture your mind, your heart, and your gut. But that’s not the case for every story in Tenth of December.

For example, “Exhortation” is a staff memo composed of inept motivational business-speak wrapped around the message that the department will all be fired unless performance measures improve. “My Chivalric Fiasco” is mostly about what happens when a worker at a Renaissance-Fair business takes a drug that makes him a highly articulate speaker of ersatz medieval dialect.

Other than admiring Saunders prose, or nodding in automatic agreement at the obvious lessons (offices are insane places in “Exhortation” and sexual harassment is bad in “Fiasco”), there is little for the reader to do. The gimmick of the style doesn’t hide the thinness of the story.

The longest piece in this collection, and I think the weakest, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries”. The story is told through the diary of a man who plunges his family from serious money problems to desperate money problems by making an expensive, impulsive, and useless purchase.

This purchase happens to be (as is eventually revealed to us) four young girls from poor countries who hire themselves out as living lawn ornaments.

As a big honking obvious metaphor for the exploitation of third-world labor by Americans, you would be hard pressed to find a metaphor bigger or more honking or more obvious. Once Saunders shows the metaphor to you, however, there is not much left. You can enjoy the gyrations of the story. I didn’t. You can admire his prose style. I did. But virtuosity alone is never enough to satisfy me. It has to be in the service of something other than itself.

Don’t let this stop you from reading Tenth of December. The rewards outweigh the frustrations, and your effort will be entirely redeemed by its best and shortest story, “Sticks,” in which a man tries to connect with his family by decorating a metal pole in their yard with clothes and words. Here Saunders does more in two pages than many writers can do in one hundred. And that’s neither innovation or gimmick. That’s  talent.

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