Monthly Archives: June 2012

Year of 52 Books #11: Shakespeare Manuscript

The Shakespeare Manuscript, by Stewart Buettner

**

I picked this book up by browsing through the Kindle Top 100 selling free books list. The premise looked interesting to me—an old manuscript that appears to be an earlier draft of the Hamlet story, or more accurately, a prequel to Hamlet, shows up in a trunk of old documents and a struggling theater troupe decides to mount a production in hopes that it will bring them the boost they need. And it was interesting, and even bordered on can’t-put-it-down (I really wanted to see what happened next), but ultimately it was more frustrating than anything else.

You see, one of the ground rules of writing is Show, Don’t Tell. From reading the description of this book and the author’s experience in writing, I don’t know if he’s a trained writer; I got the impression that he’s something else (a theater type, maybe?) who got an idea and decided to write a book about it. I think it’s also semi-self-published, which, good for him. But at any rate it seems clear that even if he is a trained writer, he missed class the day they explained Show, Don’t Tell.

I’m not talking about his descriptive diction or his approach to writing individual scenes. I’m talking about plot. Put simply: too much of the action took place offstage. There were so many times in this book when MAJOR plot points were not shown; someone told us about them later in passing. I felt severely cheated in a lot of instances because even the telling tended to gloss over what I thought were important parts. One of the more egregious examples: one chapter ends with one of the major characters being rushed away from the rehearsal retreat in an ambulance. It’s not until several chapters later that anyone even mentions him again and we find out what happened. And those intervening chapters are full of scenes and incidents where all the people who watched the ambulance leave are together; where it would be natural and right to explain what the resolution of that particular piece of drama is; where, in short, it feels unnatural to NOT mention it. This isn’t creating an aura of mystery or suspense to serve the plot of the story; this is straight up withholding information from the reader just because you want to have a big shocking reveal later.

(It’s like starting Gone With the Wind with the picnic at Tara and then skipping ahead to a scene where Scarlett, in between wondering if Rhett really loves her or that Belle Watling character, thinks in passing that he just hasn’t been the same since Atlanta got burned down and everything was destroyed and I nearly starved to death in the ruins of Tara, and does he really like me or is it just in my imagination?)

Other scenes of omission (sorry; my dad is hopelessly addicted to puns and sometimes I just can’t help myself) aren’t as obvious, but they are just as annoying. Yes, sometimes it’s a good and effective trick to show a scene through its aftermath, but you actually have to 1) explain enough of what happened in the scene that the aftermath makes sense and 2) have the aftermath actually move somewhere and have some sort of action or resolution in re: said scene. I feel like I got half of a good novel: the anguished uncertainty of love interior monologue half. There were so many words spent on what the two main viewpoint characters thought of their respective love interests that it really underscored how many words WEREN’T said about actual plot or action scenes.

Things I would love to have seen or to have had explained:

*What is up with the main character’s sudden-onset agoraphobia anyway? As in, how did it get started and how is she suddenly miraculously okay enough with it to function?

*What is up with the dead brother/son that nobody ever mentions? Even when they finally get to this explanation, it isn’t explained.

*What was the horrible thing the professor said to the love interest that caused the major insurmountable fight that is then surmounted in roughly two minutes of interior monologue?

*What’s the backstory between main character and skeazy actor? It’s mentioned so many times that there IS a backstory but we are NEVER given any details.

*Did the wife really flirt with the brother-in-law or was the husband just really drunk?

*Where the heck did that divorce come from? (Oh, wait, left field is where.)

*What happened after said divorce came out of said left field?

*Why is main character still fighting with older brother? Why does older brother put up with it? Why does he work for a politician?

*While we’re at it, what’s the deal with brother-in-law? Or with secretary? Or with any number of people, all of whom seem to be important cogs in this book and have important scenes that ALL HAPPEN OFFSTAGE?

*Is British bookseller actually creepy or is it just the aftereffects of crazy dad’s amnesia?

*Who really wrote the manuscript? (Actually, this one I was okay with the ambiguity on—this book is more about the waves the manuscript causes than the actual manuscript itself. It’s just that, with all the other stuff that got left out, I felt like maybe the author could have thrown us a small bone on this one.)

In short: just because one character gets major amnesia doesn’t mean you have to make the reader feel like she also got amnesia and forgot half of the book.

I can only give this book two stars, which really makes me sad, because I wanted so badly to like it and because it really was gripping enough that I read it straight through in a fever of wanting to know what happens next. But if a book refuses to tell you what happened before, what’s happening now or what happens next, the best premise in the world can’t save it. Two stars.

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Year of 52 Books #10: Life of Pi

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

***

Surprisingly, this was not a re-read for me. I know this book has been around forever and I had been hearing of it for a long time. What may be more surprising, though, is that with all the buzz, I really didn’t know anything about the plot going into this book. I picked it up as a Kindle Daily Deal (oh, KDD, how I love thee!) because I like buying titles I recognize for cheap as free.

I feel that a little context is necessary for my review. The week before we made the big cross-country move, my husband was already in Florida getting things set up and starting his job. I was back in Utah packing up everything and taking care of our 18-month-old son, who decided to get RSV exactly eight days before we were scheduled to fly out and two days before my husband was supposed to come home to help me with the final arrangements and such. Long and harrowing story short, I ended up spending a very long and very bad night in the hospital as they monitored my son’s breathing and heart rate (fortunately they didn’t end up having to put him on oxygen and he was better enough to go home the next day). I got very little sleep, due to both the assorted blinking and beeping coming from the monitors and an overabundance of worry from various sources, listed here in roughly descending order: 1) my son, 2) the fact that my husband was out-of-state, 3) the fact that I didn’t have time for this emergency what with the tight packing schedule, 4) the fact that I was moving cross country soon, and 5) the fact that I was hungry and thirsty and suspected that the hospital staff had forgotten their promise to bring me some cheese and crackers and a cup of ice water.

To try and get my mind off of these various issues, I started reading a new book on my Kindle app on my iPhone, and happened to choose Life of Pi. Thus I did not start reading it in the most auspicious of circumstances, nor did I finish reading it in the most auspicious of circumstances. Turns out that a toddler with RSV tends to pass it on to you if he coughs in your face repeatedly because he’s too exhausted to turn his head away from you and is so sick and sad that you can’t put him down for more than 30 seconds at a time. So, three days after our hospital stay, I was fighting through RSV myself while packing up two moving pods. Fortunately my bout did not require any hospital time, but I did spend the bulk of the next day curled up with my iPhone on an air mattress, a lump of pathetic misery, finishing this book. (Needless to say, this move was not the smoothest or most organized one we’ve ever made.)

But as for the book itself: I liked it. It was able to distract me enough from the crappy situation I was going through and entertain and even uplift me. My favorite part was the description of the events leading to Pi’s becoming a devout follower and active practicer of three different religions at once (Hindu, Islam and Christianity). I loved his descriptions of his first encounters with other religions and how he came to love his two adopted religions as well as the religion of his birth. I wish that this theme had been kept up a little more throughout the section on the Pacific Ocean. Not that the Pacific Ocean wasn’t exciting and enthralling as well; but it didn’t have the heart of the book that I had fallen in love with at the beginning, the tripartite faith of this young man.

Like The Princess Bride, this book is written as a frame story, with the narrator ostensibly interviewing an older Pi about his life story. Since, as I said, I knew basically nothing about this book going in, and my Kindle edition didn’t specifically say “A Novel” on it, I wasn’t sure at first if this was fiction or non-fiction. It added another layer to the reading experience for me, wondering if it was actually true or not. I know that part of the point of the book is to look at what is or isn’t true and choose the story that means the most to us, but it still was sad to determine for certain that this book was fiction after I finished reading it, and I think that revelation made me like it a little less than I had. That’s not really fair to the author, of course; but that’s the way it is.

All in all, this book was a solid good read and a much-needed distraction for me during that last horrible week before the move. I don’t know if I would have liked it more or less if I’d read it in different circumstances, but as it is I can recommend it as a good book, as long as you don’t get too squeamish (certain of the lifeboat scenes are a bit gruesome). Three stars.

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Year of 52 Books #9: Persuasion

Persuasion by Jane Austen

*****

Side note: I love this cover and wish I had a copy of this version. What a perfect image for this book!

When people ask what my favorite book or movie is, I usually can’t give them a simple answer. It’s like choosing a favorite child (even though I only have the one), I say. I love so many books; you can’t possibly ask me to name just one favorite! I hem and haw and list five or ten books on my rotating favorites list.

But I’m going to admit, here and now, that I really do have one single favorite book, and that it’s Persuasion.

I’ve been thinking over this review for a few weeks now and have been having much more difficulty writing it than might be expected, given that I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read this book and that I love nearly everything about it. But it’s important to me that I properly articulate why this book means so much to me.

It surprises me sometimes that more people don’t know about Persuasion. Everyone knows and loves Pride and Prejudice, which is kind of the sparkly diamond necklace of the Austen canon: beautiful and dazzling and obviously worthwhile. Persuasion is more of the tiny gold band, plain and sweet and perfect, fitted to the hand from long wear and love. Most people also know about Sense and Sensibility and Emma, mainly because they know Emma Thompson or Kate Winslet or Gwyneth Paltrow. Not as many people know Amanda Root, which means that not as many people know Anne Elliot, which is a true shame.

This book, to me, provides much more than “occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one.” It is the book above all others that I know I can go to at any time and in any mood and come away feeling whole and happy, enlightened and enlivened.

It may sound silly to wax so poetic about what many would view as a typical chick-flick-Austen-love-story: poor boy meets well-to-do girl, they get engaged, she is persuaded by (probably snobby) friends that it would be better for him if she broke off the engagement, he gets upset and leaves to make a great career for himself in the Navy, she stays home and never marries. So far, so Nicholas Sparks.

Their paths do not cross again for eight years, which time has served to confirm Anne’s belief that Captain Frederick Wentworth was her ideal match, and to solidify Captain Wentworth’s anger at the woman he loved but who had not, as he believed, loved him well enough to keep him. He turns up in the neighborhood to visit his sister and to look for a wife—any woman but Anne Elliot.

Things work out, as they tend to do in Austen novels, but in a real and moving way that flows perfectly, leaving you with a sense that all is as it should be. No grand coincidences or deus ex machinas here. Anne and Captain Wentworth are drawn back together because there is no other way the world can possibly be; they are meant for each other.

But, for me, this is not primarily a love story.

I will admit that my love of love stories certainly doesn’t diminish my pleasure in this book, and that my sentimental heart beats wildly along with Anne’s through the more suspenseful and sweet portions of the story. But it’s not the romance that keeps me coming back to revisit this book every year or six months.

Ultimately, this is a story about hope. Hope that things can be mended, that mistakes can be made right. Hope that life can be good and worthwhile even if you have family troubles or heartbreak or other problems. And yes, the hope that lost love can return.

I think that’s why the basic Persuasion-style plot line—love is thwarted for a long time but eventually triumphs—is so popular and sees so many iterations. One of the more recent ones I can think of is the delightful movie Letters to Juliet. The ostensible main story line about a perky young journalist (Amanda Seyfried) looking to get her big break and her sparring with the grandson of a woman she’s writing about is cute enough, your standard chick-flick fare. But the secondary story about the grandmother, played by the inimitable Vanessa Redgrave, is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while. Simply enough, this grandmother comes back to Italy after fifty years to find the boy she fell in love with as a girl and tell him that she’s sorry she didn’t meet him to run away together like she’d promised. She’s not necessarily looking for a grand reunion, romance, the works. She just wants to tell a person who was important to her that she’s sorry she let him down.

Of course things work out, just as they do in Persuasion. But if things never worked out, how would we be able to hope? If we had no memory of light, no hope that it would return, how would we bear the darkness? If we didn’t think that things could be mended, why would we ever try to make them right?

Anne, for all the dreary stretch of years clouded by regret, the dearth of real friendship and companionship in her life and the pain of suspense that she faces, still manages to keep hope and life and quiet joy alive, even when things look bleakest. That is her triumph. Even if Captain Wentworth had married Louisa, Anne would have kept that hope in life. The fact that things DO work out is just the icing on the cake.

And that is why this is my favorite book.

Well, that and the fact that Captain Wentworth can write one heck of a letter.

Five stars.

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