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The Art of Fiction Snooze

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is pretentious and not one of my favorite writing books at all. I’ve heard about this book for sometime and figured I would give it a try. So I picked it up from the library, hoping to learn something new and enjoy the book. I usually don’t bash books on the blog, but I cannot recommend this one outright.

Gardner’s style of writing in the book bored me to tears; it reminded me of those professors that put the class to sleep in college. I was an eager college student who wanted to learn in every class, but there were those teachers that don’t have the knack to keep students’ attention. John Gardner, I fear, is one of those people…or at least that is how he came across in this book.

What I can say that is good about it is that it helped me discern the type of story I have been working on and how to frame it better. I discovered this information in the section where he discusses tales vs. epic vs. yarn. I’m glad that I read that section of the book because it was helpful, though that was near the beginning.

Much of this book is written in a way that puts down the reader who is less familiar with Gardner’s “favorites” who are mentioned often, like Thackeray. I almost felt like I had learned nothing in my undergrad English major, though I know the contrary to be true.

In the copy of this book I got from the library, I found a small pen-written “Amen” in one section that highlighted what many students feel about literature classes in high school. Often students find classes overly focused on the classic writers, like Coleridge, when “Howard the Duck” is more entertaining. Gardner uses this discussion to draw a line between popular fiction and what he calls “art.” I wonder if he meant to be condescending in this passage. I got the impression that popular fiction is the crap on his heel as he walks down a pristine garden path.

However, there are some great nuggets of information in this book. He recommends that authors/writers allow their characters to have free will and not impose their own desires or direction upon characters. This same advice is reiterated throughout the book in regard to style. Gardner also points out some common mistakes made by amateur writers. I won’t list those here, but they were helpful in many ways. Sometimes, I slip as well.

Memoirs of Fiction

Syrie James‘ The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen is a fantastic addition to all things Jane. The novel invents the discovery of Jane Austen’s memoirs in an attic chest and spins a artistic web that intertwines the beauty of Austen’s novels with historical truths and imagined fictions.

***Spoiler Alert***

The memoir is discovered in an old seaman’s chest, which has been bricked up into a wall–perhaps by Jane’s sister Cassandra. Many of the facts we know about Jane’s life are peppered throughout the book, but the crux of the novel for me was the way in which James easily winds in bits of Austen’s novel, Sense and Sensibility.

Like Elinor, Jane falls in love with a gentleman who matches her wit and humor–Mr. Frederick Ashford. Ashford is a man of great fortune who is taken with Jane almost instantly. And we wondered why Jane could write such romantic novels without having experienced love or passion. This fiction sheds light on a possible reason why Jane succumbed to spinsterhood, or should I say chose to remain a single woman.

Ashford is not only resembles Edward Ferrars, but he also bears some of the similar burdens of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride & Prejudice, though not in personality, but in familial burdens that come with wealth.

Tragically, Jane does not get the happy endings her readers so desire or that she provides to her readers without a second thought. However, she does get the passion, love, and kisses she deserves for her brilliance, her humor, her love of life, and her devotion.

***End Spoiler Alert***

I don’t say this often, but this is one of those books that must go into the pile that I will read again and again in the coming years. Perhaps after re-reading various Austen novels and following supplemental novels with her characters as seen through the eyes of contemporary authors, like Mr. Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange.

After the fiasco that was The Jane Austen Book Club, I was a bit tentative about picking up another contemporary book about Austen and her characters, but James does a beautiful job weaving together elements of fact, fiction, and imagination, which made this reader believe in the truth of her fiction.

Also Reviewed Here:

Book Escape

Polysyllabic Spree

Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree is an interesting look at what one man buys and reads in a given month. The commentary about his choices and his reads are fantastically amusing. It’s good to see that us readers and writers are not alone in our efforts to catalogue our finds and keep a running tally of our progress.

It was intriguing to learn how he chose his books in a given month and how one choice led to the others.

One thing I think I took issue with was Hornby’s contention that he has not felt like part of a music concert or show in a long time, like he can become part of the action in a book. I find that I don’t have this problem. I get into music in much the same way that I do books. I’m not sure what is different about my make-up compared to Hornby’s, but I am certainly not in the mainstream.

I’m a bit younger, so maybe that plays into it. I’m not sure, but I can tell you this. When I do make it to a concert (when I have some money) I am right there, in the crowd, with the crowd, in the moment of the song, and in the moment with the singer. Then again, maybe it isn’t just me, maybe it is the singer’s themselves or bands that create that feeling for me and others at the concert. I’m not sure. My favorite concerts are those with Godsmack. They always put on a crowd-involved show. I always leave feeling completely satisfied and pumped….ready for more…there is no total utility there for me. Maybe that has something to do with talking to the lead singer long ago before they were famous and I had no idea who he was…just an interesting guy to talk to between sets at a local concert venue for local bands.

Regardless, if you are feeling lonely in your list-making, just pick up Hornby’s book, and you’ll see there are a lot more of us out there than you thought.

This is just one of the books I have picked up and read because of another blogger’s review, so it qualifies for the Irresistible Review Challenge! One down, seven more to go between now and Labor Day!

The inspiring review can be found:
Things Mean a Lot

Other Reviews are here:
Books ‘N Border Collies

Who Would You Trust All Your Secrets To?

Sophie Kinsella’s “Can You Keep a Secret?” blew me away with its wit and humor. There were times when I roared out loud with laughter and there was a time near the end of the book where I wanted to weep. This book surpassed my expectations. After reading the Undomestic Goddess, I was expecting a book that was similarly amusing, but Emma is a much funnier character.

***Spoiler Alert***

When we meet Emma Corrigan she totally messes up a “slam-dunk” business meeting and is headed back to London from Scotland on a flight that gets rather turbulent in more ways than one. In some ways, the turbulent plane ride becomes a metaphor for her life throughout much of the book after meeting a fellow business executive, who turns out to be her firm’s founding owner–Jack Harper.

Emma spills all of her secrets to this stranger on the flight while others on the flight are praying that they will land safely in London. These secrets range from her hatred of crochet to her attempts to kill a co-worker’s plant with orange juice. She thinks nothing much of it at the time because he is a mere stranger on the plane. However, she soon gets back to the office to discover that the man on the plane is none other than Jack Harper, the partial owner of Panther Corporation.

The banter between Emma and Jack sets the stage for the ultimate betrayal. Emma runs the gamut of emotions in this book from pleased with herself that she and the CEO have a secret understanding to head-over-heels in love to disappointment, embarrassment, and betrayal.

***End Spoiler Alert***

This books examines relationships in their many forms: love, romance, friendship, family. Emma learns a lot about her familial relationships and that even the best of friends have secrets from one another. She learns that honesty may be the hardest option in some cases, but it generally is the best road to undertake. Her evolution throughout the novel is fantastic and well-paced. I enjoyed Emma’s struggles, which often reflect many of the struggles other women have in balancing the many relationships we have.

It begs the question, who do you trust you secrets to? I for one spread them around to various people. I have to keep everyone guessing at some point, don’t I? It also makes me wonder, how many of my secrets have been passed along to others in the heat of the moment.

That’s a question for readers…Have you told a secret to one person and not another, and why? And have you ever blurted out someone’s secret accidentally without meaning to harm the person entrusting you with that secret?

Jane’s Book Club

Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club is an interesting amalgamation of characters, but the book for me was not as satisfying as I had hoped. Many of the characters reminded me of Jane Austen’s characters, though a bit more modern. Jocelyn reminds me of a modern day Elizabeth Bennett, while Prudie reminds me of Elizabeth’s mother, especially because she prattles on and on.

For this book, I really won’t be doing any spoilers. This is one book you would have to read on your own. The characters I found most interesting, however, were the ones not delved into as much as I would have liked. I really enjoyed Sylvia’s daughter, Allegra, but unfortunately, you don’t see much of her. The narrator, who I’m not really clear on, seems to assume we know quite a bit about Allegra’s character, when we really don’t. I wonder if the narrator is an omniscient outsider or an actual book club member–this was not clear to me.

The resolution to the book club seems about rushed, and I wonder if the book club continues with another author’s works or whether it simply disbands after all of Austen’s works are discussed by the members. Fowler may have something here; perhaps she should consider writing additional book club books with character parallels from different authors.

Also Reviewed by:
The Written Word
5-Squared

Dirty Domesticity

Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess is a quick read for commuting and equally as amusing as her other books. I enjoyed Samantha Sweeting’s character much more than I did Lexi Smart. I also didn’t see as much of Becky Bloomwood in this character as I did in Lexi Smart. Kinsella has a fine talent for getting to the heart of high-powered career women who forget about the finer things in life while they are competing (and winning) in a male dominated profession.

****Spoiler Alert***
Samantha Sweeting is a powerful attorney in London, who much like her mother strives to be the best at her job. To accomplish her goal of becoming a partner at Carter Spink, Samantha works more hours than the other attorneys and barely has a social life. When she finally manages to get time off to have dinner with her mom and brother, she ends up having dinner with two cell phones, an assistant, and singing group of waiters. Suffice to say, her personal life can’t get much worse. That’s what you would think, but then the senior partner from the firm, the one she does not have a cordial relationship with, moves into her building, two floors up.

Early on, something goes terribly wrong at the firm and she panics. Heads out of town to the countryside where she is mistakenly hired as a housekeeper. At first she takes the job because she is still in a state of shock, but as she learns of the fallout from her “mistake,” she decides that being a housekeeper could be a fine change of pace. After many dirty domestic mishaps, Samantha realizes she needs some cooking and cleaning lessons. Nathaniel, the gardener, offers his mother’s services after laughing at her expense when she fails to start the washing machine and can barely make toast and coffee. Iris, his mother, sets about helping Samantha become domestic. She teaches her how to make food, bread, pastry, and other items, but most importantly, Iris helps her slowdown and relax…take in the little things about life and cooking. The scenes with Iris and Nathaniel on the weekends are fantastic.

***End Spoiler Alert***

I won’t go into all the details of the book, but there is a great scene in the garden between Samantha and Nathaniel that just made me swoon. Yes, I said swoon. I wish that romance of that caliber were real. Don’t get me wrong, love is still here in my life, it’s just different. The puppy love of this scene made me reminisce. The resolution of the book is exactly what you would expect; well, maybe not exactly as you picture it. But you get your just desserts.

Also reviewed at:
A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore
Book Escape

A Soldier’s Promise

I’m not one for audio books, but the husband couldn’t resist this one when we were browsing through the discount book section. The audio book, A Soldier’s Promise, chronicles the struggles of our troops in Iraq, particularly those of First Sergeant Daniel Hendrix. I probably would never have picked up this book off the shelf because I tend to find these stories drawn out and boring in parts. However, given the way this story was read, I may have liked to read the actual book because the writing style is not obtuse or too militaristic. We were listening to this audio book on and off for about three weeks in the car as we drove into work together, so it took us longer than it would have taken me to read it on my own, but he enjoyed it. This book is set just after the fall of Saddam.

***Spoiler Alert***

The beginning of the book starts off before Hendrix leaves his wife for duty and after his unit, Dragon Company, completes specialized training. Once in Iraq, there are a series of ambushes and other events that occur, but things start to turn around for the American troops when informants turn up at their checkpoint offering information about insurgents in exchange for money or other items. The troops come to expect any Iraqis to seek monetary gain for their information, until Jamil enters the checkpoint demanding to be arrested.

The book does not completely focus on just the American troops, and I think this is what caught my attention the most. The chapters alternate between the troops and Jamil’s family. His father is a leader of one of the insurgency movements in Husaybah, Iraq. His father and his neighbor are blood thirsty and eager to battle American troops. His father wants his son to join the insurgency and stage raids and use other guerrilla tactics against the Americans. Jamil is not interested in this life and eventually sees the Americans as the only way to escape his abusive father.

At the checkpoint, he is taken into custody and begins informing the Americans about his father and the local insurgency’s weapons and plans. The troops, after much debate, agree to stage a raid, ultimately capturing Jamil’s father and several others. The problem is that his father’s neighbor, Sayed (excuse the spelling here), is on the loose and even more blood thirsty than Jamil’s father.

Jamil, who garners the nickname Steve-O, becomes a great asset to Dragon Company and the marines that take their place, but in the process a 14-year-old boy grows up too fast and loses his family to the insurgency and Iraq’s battle with itself. Hendrix promises that he will one day get the boy out of Iraq into the safety of the United States.

***End Spoiler***

I was captivated by the images in this audio book and was captivated by the underlying message that as humans we are all striving toward similar goals. We all want to be loved for who we are, we all want to be independent of other’s rule and oppression, and we are all capable of seeing past prejudice to find the humanity within. We also all have the capacity to do the right thing when the time is right. I would recommend this audio book for long road trips or just commuting to and from work.

Darkness With a Pinch of Sugar Sweetness

Human Dark With Sugar by Brenda Shaughnessy arrived in the mail from the American Academy of Poets and I was pleased because I haven’t read a book of poetry in some time. I think that it is only fair that I review this book on this, the last day of National Poetry Month. This second book of poetry from Shaughnessy won the James Laughlin Award.

The first section of the book is Anodyne, also known as a pain-killer. This section of the book is not euphoric by any means. It is almost as if she is attempting to kill the pain with the sharpness of her words. For instance in “I’m Over the Moon:”
“How long do I try to get water from a stone?/It’s like having a bad boyfriend in a good band.// Better off alone. I’m going to write hard/and fast into you, moon, face-f**king.//”

The second section of the book is Ambrosia, from the Greek mean of food or drink of the gods that confers immortality on the consumer. Is the narrator of Shaughnessy’s poems interested in immortality? One of my favorite poems from this section is “Three Sorries,” particularly the “1. I’m Sorry” section of the poem:

“Soon 1. born 1970
2. Cried: all along
3. Loved: you really so very much and no others

blurred into: 1. begging off for the dog-years behavior
2. extra heart hidden in sock drawer
3. undetected slept with others”

It seems as though she really is not sorry for her actions or the events leading up to the incident. It’s amazing how many of these poems appear apologetic and wistful on the surface, but then turn to sarcasm and bleakness.

The third section is Astrolabe or astronomical instrument to surveying, locating, and predicting the positions of the sun, moon, and stars. I think the best illustration of this concept is Shaughnessy’s “A Poet’s Poem.”

“I will get the word freshened out of this poem.// I put it in the first line, then moved it to the second./ and now it won’t come out.// It’s stuck. I’m so frustrated,/ so I went out to my little porch all covered in snow// and watched the icicles drip, as I smoked/a cigarette.//” The poem ends quizzically: “I can’t stand myself.”

“No Such Thing as One Bee” is another poem that illustrates this need to pinpoint a location. Shaughnessy uses a narrator that is unsure of where they are in life and how they fit into the greater scheme. Where it is a busy worker bee or a bee that goes out to collect pollen. I guess you could almost equate it to the Bee movie with Jerry Seinfeld.

Overall, this is one of the better poetry books I have read in some time. I love the sarcastic and bleak language used by Shaughnessy in her poems. It’s the darkest side of humanity she examines, and she tries not to sugarcoat it, but sometimes, she just can’t help herself.

I Wouldn’t Want to Remember Her Either…

Sophie Kinsella‘s Remember Me? reveals how changes to one’s life can be bad, as well as good. The novel centers on a young businesswoman, Lexi Smart, who wakes up in a hospital after a car accident and cannot remember the last three years of her life. The last thing she remembers is that it is 2004 and she was out with friends at a local bar the night before her father’s funeral, having fun before she fell down a set of stairs.

***Spoiler Alert***
Lexi wakes up and her mom is the same she ever was, but her sister has grown up into a teenager. Lexi cannot believe her eyes; her little sister has grown up and is a sarcastic, budding criminal. She also finds out that she is married to a hot stud, who happens to be a millionaire and knows how to drive a speedboat. This part of the description cracked me up. Why would it matter if he can drive a speedboat, but I guess it does to Lexi who is obsessed with all things material. She also discovers that she is now the director of her department and is a total B**ch boss who has lost all of her friends, including those she remembers from the night at the bar in 2004.

She struggles to remember any part of the last three years, including her time on a reality television show, much like the Apprentice. But she cannot remember a thing. To help Lexi out, her hot husband, Eric, gives her a “marriage manual.” The manual spells out how often they have sex, how they have sex, how she greets him, how they say goodbye in the mornings, how they initiate foreplay, etc. It is a step-by-step process to their relationship and marriage. A bit overwhelming for a woman with amnesia, but beyond that the manual makes their marriage seem more like a business transaction.

Throughout her re-acclimation to her “new” life, Lexi learns that she also was having an affair with Eric’s business partner and architect, Jon. Jon, who claims that they are in love and were on the verge of telling Eric, cannot believe that she does not remember him. Moreover, Lexi must return to a job that she does not feel comfortable performing and cannot imagine ever being capable of performing. Worse yet, her subordinate, Byron, is after her job and wastes no time putting her down when she returns from the hospital.

Despite her best efforts to save her job and her marriage, Lexi fails to save her department, but in the process finds her inner businesswoman and learns how to be independent and self-sufficient without injuring her friends. The part that is the most accurate in the book is that she fails to fully regain her memory by the end of the book, though there is a glimmer of hope.

***End Spoiler Alert***

I thoroughly enjoyed this journey with Lexi Smart. She may have changed her life in the three years she cannot remember, but she changes the most in those months following her car accident more profoundly than she did after her father’s death.

I’m not sure I would want to remember myself if I had changed so utterly in those three missing years. There is a significant disconnect between the woman she was in 2004 and the woman she became into 2007.

Those interested in the contest, please either post an original poem or your favorite poem in the comments by May 2, and I will post the winner on May 3.

For other Reviews of this book:

A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore
Lous_Pages

Surfing Through Life

Body Surfing by Anita Shreve is not one of my favorite novels, but I enjoyed the meditative way in which she weaves the love triangle between Sydney, Jeff, and Ben. What I enjoyed most about the love triangle is that it is done in such a way that it takes the whole book to see the outcome and the third angle in the triangle.

***Spoiler Alert***

Sydney loves to body surf in the ocean, and this becomes a metaphor for how she lives her life. She tends to get swept up by the circumstances she finds herself in, whether it’s the odd jobs she has held or the men she becomes involved with. She’s been married two times previously when we meet her in the book, and she has taken time off from graduate school after the death of her second husband to tutor a young girl, Julie Edwards, for the SATs over the summer.

She has a relatively calm time at the New Hampshire beach cottage, which has appeared in several of Shreve’s other novels–including one of my favorites The Pilot’s Wife. The house’s history is not lost on the character of Mr. Edwards in this book, and he has even become a sort of historian of the house. It has been great to see the stories that emerge from this single cottage over the years. I wonder if Shreve will set another novel in this cottage; I would enjoy visiting it again.

Suddenly, Sydney is thrust between two brothers and their competitive behavior. The competition is not overt, but alluded to throughout the book. The subtlety here may be hard to sift through, but reading Shreve’s works in the past, I’ve become more attune to her visual cues and descriptions to uncover the internal struggles and hidden agendas and connections between her characters.

I truly enjoyed the parts after the wedding debacle where Sydney spends time in a Boston hotel to regroup and her meeting with Mr. Cavalli. I think these were eye-opening experiences for the character. Her return to New Hampshire three years later for a psychology conference and her subsequent meeting with Ben is a major turning point for a number of characters, including Sydney and Ben’s mother. I just love the few lines with which Shreve accomplishes the transition in this book and the immediate mutual realization that Ben and Sydney reach together.

***End Spoiler Alert***

Overall, this book held my attention throughout the daily commute and even some evenings at home when I was engrossed in the dialogue and current situations Sydney found herself in. While it is not as well constructed as The Pilot’s Wife, Sea Glass, or The Last Time They Met, I enjoyed my journey back to the oceanside of New Hampshire and the trip back into Boston, even if it was for a brief interlude.

***Please feel free to enter the next National Poetry Month Contest here.

The Poetry Contest Winner Is…Another Contest Too!

My Aunt Ann. She will be receiving some love poems by Pablo Neruda, which are in English and Neruda’s native language.

I also want to alert you to the second contest for the month, again a volume of poetry. I may even email the winner with a choice of volumes from which they can choose their prize. We’ll see how many entries I get this time around.

Those interested, please either post an original poem or your favorite poem in the comments by April 25, and I will post the winner on April 26.

Unfortunately, my aunt is not allowed to grace us with her witty poems this time around since she already won a poetry volume. Even if you entered the last contest, please do enter again, with a different poem. Let’s Celebrate National Poetry Month.

Also for those interested, April 17 is Poem in Your Pocket day. If you choose to participate, you are to walk around with a poem in your pocket all day and periodically take it out and read it to friends and family or even co-workers throughout the day. I’ll let you know what poem I decide upon and what poem Anna chooses to share as well.

Is Helen The Almost Moon?

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold pulls out all the stops and blurs the boundaries of morality and a normal life. Helen Knightley is a woman haunted by her past and her present, so much so that it drives her to do the unthinkable.

***Spoiler Alert***

While Anna had read this book before me, I had forgotten much of what she told me until I came to the part where Helen smothers her elderly mother. I’m not telling you anything that you won’t find out in the first chapter. The book is not about the events leading up to her mother’s murder, but how Helen came to the conclusion that murder was the answer and how that answer was shaped by her childhood and her first marriage.

For me, the main problem I had with the novel was my inability to feel sorry for Helen. It’s not that I didn’t find her life hard as a child with an agoraphobic mother and a bipolar father, with suicidal tendencies; I guess the narration jumped around too much for me to delve deeper into the character’s feelings and psyche. I always felt like Helen was keeping us just outside a wall that we were not allowed to jump over. I guess you could say I felt a bit like Hamish, her best friend’s son and her lover. He says at one point in the book that he knows Helen has a good heart, but that she can be “so cold” sometimes. This is how I felt about Helen.

Her actions jump from murdering her mother to sleeping with her best friend’s son, right after calling her ex-husband she hasn’t spoken to in years to confess her crime. While I can see the connection between her murdering her mother and calling the one person she believed would understand her motivations, I was taken aback by the sudden sexual interlude between her and Hamish. Perhaps she was in shock, perhaps she was hoping the sex would release something pent up inside of her. I really cannot say.

The journey from leaving her mother in the basement to the discovery of her murder by the police is intertwined with childhood memories and memories of her marriage to Jake, the artist, painter, and sculptor. These are the scenes I enjoyed most. I was given a rare glimpse into Helen’s life that shaped her current persona. It allowed me to garner a sense of her inner turmoil where her mother was concerned and how she always seemed to identify herself as on her father’s side. The transition at the end from realizing that her father was not the victim but an enabler was fantastic. It was almost like it took Helen her entire life to realize the marriage and their problems at home were the result of two people in dire need of psychological assistance, not just her mother as she had always presumed.

And in a way, I wanted more of a resolution, not Helen’s speculations on the matter. Was she going to escape or was she arrested and sent to prison for her mother’s murder? These are the questions that still linger for me.

***End Spoiler Alert***

While her mother is referred to as The Almost Moon early on in the book, I came to believe it was Helen and her father that the phrase referred to most.

If you are looking for another Lucky or Lovely Bones, The Almost Moon is not it. This book made the commuting time on the bus and metro fly by, but the tail end of the book dragged for me. I think a few of the descriptive pages could have been cut out to make the ending more powerful for the character.

Also Reviewed by:

The Bookworm