Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Song of Bernadette, by Franz Werfel, translated by Lewis Lewisohn (1941).

Even if you're not religious, this story is sure to evoke a smorgasbord of emotions. The accounts of poverty and politics during this period (circa 1850) are rich in detail and absorbing. The cast of characters are touching and real. This is more than a good yarn. This is beyond subtle commentary on faith and doubt and human nature. The telling is packed with great, sometimes heart-wrenching, scenes. Understandably, this classic maintained the New York Times Best Seller list for 13 weeks.

As a nod to the Catholic Rosary, the novel is comprised of five parts, each part containing ten chapters. To my surprise, part one takes on present tense. I'm not sure whether this qualifies as unique for novels written seventy-five years ago, but it might.

What intrigued me most was Bernadette's simplicity. Since fiction writers are forever instructed to make their protagonists interesting, whether by introducing a glaring flaw or a striking quirk (such as my youngest sister shaking a branch of sage around the house to ward off evil; I love her dearly for it), the protagonist must stand out, be memorable. Ironically, Bernadette is a rather plain and plain spoken twelve year old. She suffers asthma and receives her share of bullying. Beyond that, she isn't particularly remarkable. However, throughout the course of the story, you find yourself caring deeply for this poor and poorly maligned girl. In the process, it's her simplicity and ignorance that becomes her charm.

The story behind this novel is likewise engaging. While Franz Werfel and his wife fled from the Nazis through France in 1940, the author learned about Bernadette, the preteen on which the novel is based, who purported to have experienced a total of eighteen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lourdes in 1858. She was eventually canonized in 1933. Moved by the accounts and interviews he subsequently conducted, the writer vowed to write the protagonist's story once he reached the United States. I'm glad he did.

Overall, a well written story with lots of emotional impact. Five out of five stars. 

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Riddle-Master of Hed, by Patricia A. McKillip (1976)

When a friend recommends a novel, my first question is never, What's it about? Instead, I always ask who wrote it. If not familiar with the author, and if I know my friend has discriminating tastes, I ask, What's the writing like? I once loaned my copy of Tolkien's The Children of Húrin to a friend with the qualifier, The subject matter is pretty morbid. This triggered a raised brow. “But, I said, the writing is superb. To which he replied, Well, it's Tolkien! 

Whether you revel in stories involving space aliens, 19th century sleuths, druids of antiquity, lovers in the Victorian Era, modern day cyber criminals, fairies with an inexhaustible supply of pixie dust, or talking animals, no qualifier exists to gauge the value or validity of such interests. To each his (or her) own, I say.  

The rules of grammar, on the other hand, while not the ultimate factor for determining a thumbs up or down of any given work, is a good first step toward gauging quality of prose and clarity of thought. In fact, the whole point of these rules, though admittedly malleable, is to encourage comprehension. When it comes to novels, this criterion is one of many among a host of objective standards for evaluating, dare I say, the discipline known as fine writing. 

Because suspension of disbelief is individual and each reader's threshold is different, my focus isn't so much about what happens in a story but rather how it's conveyed. As a great writer and friend has said, “It's not about what you write, but how you say it. If you get the words right, it's like music on a page.” 

So to be clear, this critique is concerned with the writer's execution, delivery, style, and command of the language, not subject matter. This is my only stipulation. Well, that and an engaging story. I don't think that's too much to ask.

This is why, despite my aversion to much of the perversity and despairing content in any number of Nabokov's novels, I tend to give his stuff five out of five stars. For the same reason, regardless my love for fantasy fiction, I'm giving The Riddle-Master of Hed a negative nine. Essentially, this is because Nabokov is a master wordsmith, whereas McKillip can't compose a coherent sentence.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently came across an online list from BuzzFeed: “The 51 Best Fantasy Series Ever Written.” So, after a long hiatus, I decided to return to the genre in the hopes of reading some of the more, presumably, better novels of that genre. 

So far, I'm regretting that decision. In fact, if I've learned anything from this most recent novel, apart from what not to do as a writer, it's that Del Ray has some fairly low standards. Based on this entry and a few others on the list I've read, most modern writers of this genre, subject matter aside, are at best subpar and at worst in need of a composition 101 refresher course. 

First, the title of this novel is beyond misleading; it's false advertising. The protagonist Morgon is hailed as a riddle-master. Morgon is said to have battled another riddle-master and won a king's crown before the story begins. (We readers are deprived of this scene.) Yet despite the “riddles” presented to Morgon throughout the novel, as well as the “riddles” referred to in his game of wits with the other riddle-master off-stage, none of these “riddles” are actual riddles. 

Indeed, someone needs to explain to the author that while a riddle is a sort of question, a question is not a riddle. Like other word problems, riddles frequently contain clues; questions generally don't. Granted, some riddles offer no clues but rather require one's powers of deduction, and some riddles are deliberately misleading. Still, there's a considerable difference between “What three letters transform a boy into a man?” (Age) and “What's the capital of Kansas?” (Topeka). Here are some other legitimate riddles: “How many months contain 28 days?” (All 12 of them.) “A woman has seven children. Half of them are boys. How is this possible?” (They're all boys.) “I have a head. I have a tail. But I have no body. What am I?” (A coin.) Or, to be precise, a talking coin.

In this novel, not a single clever query or rhyme is offered. Instead, we get questions like, Who is the man in the red robe? Neither the protagonist nor the reader knows. We've never seen such a man, and when the question is asked, no man is about, red-robed or otherwise. 

Leaving aside the plot, let's further ignore the fact that the protagonist in this novel has three inexplicable stars on his forehead. (I say inexplicable because the author never explains these markings in the story.) Nor will we examine the alleged appeal of a protagonist taught to become a shape shifter, a vesta, whatever that is (the author doesn't specify, nor is a vesta listed in the glossary at the back of the book, though from what I gather it's a kind of elk or deer). Nor the fact that another character teaches the protagonist how to temporarily become a tree. Whether these sorts of things appeal to readers I leave to the readers since, as I say, personal taste, and hence subject matter, is subjective.

Having said that, this is by far the worst novel I've ever read. I offer some examples. Keep in mind McKillip, the author, has an MA in English, and this novel ranked 13th in a 1987 reader's poll for All-Time Best Fantasy Novels and 22nd in their 1998 poll. Nevertheless McKillip tends to compose the most clumsy sentences this side of the Mississippi. Not a single paragraph shines, and some of her awkward construction is downright horrid.
Heureu had risen. He gripped Morgon firmly; his voice sounded distant, then returned, full. “I should have thought …”

His voice returned full? From what? From its distance? Does it matter whether Heureu's voice is full or sounds distant or returns? 
The harpist rose. His face was hollowed, faintly lined with weariness; his voice, calm as always, held no trace of it. “How do you feel?”

Held no trace of what? Of weariness? Why write this way? How about this: The harpist rose. He looked weary. Calmly, he asked, “How do you feel?”
He smiled reminiscently.

How exactly does one smile “reminiscently”?
Morgon drew a breath. His head bowed suddenly, his face hidden from the harpist. He was silent for a long time while Deth waited, stirring the fire now and then, the sparks shooting upwards like stars. He lifted his head finally.

Point of view violations aside, the author writes reams of confusing narrative like this. Characters constantly look one another in the eye, look away, look down, turn, lift or lower their heads, etc. Meanwhile, antecedents get shuffled and the reader is left to guess about who's speaking and doing what. I'm still not clear which one of them, Deth or Morgon, was stirring the fire "now and then" nor who to ascribe the pronoun to in the last sentence. And since when do sparks from a fire remind one of stars? 
Morgon drew an outraged breath.

What precisely is an outraged breath? Morgon was outraged? Got it. He sighed in exasperation? Maybe. How about telling us simply, “Morgon was outraged” or “Morgon was exasperated”?
The next morning, he saw Herun, a small land ringed with mountains, fill like a bowl with dawn.

Do bowls ordinarily fill with dawn? Essentially this allusion is aided by the appearance of mountains which “ringed” the “small land”. Fair enough. But the phrase “a small land ringed with mountains” is problematic, given Morgon's decision beforehand to avoid crossing or traveling through mountains of any kind. In other words, how did Morgon reach a small land ringed with mountains without first traveling through said mountains which the author told us earlier he'd already decided to avoid?
He closed his eyes, smelled, unexpectedly, the autumn rains falling over three-quarters of Hed.

Hed is a region. How does the protagonist know the extent of its rainfall? Imagine standing on a stretch of farm land while it's raining. Could you determine whether only half the farm was receiving rain? Or two-thirds? Or “three-quarters”? Plus, even if Morgon possessed some inexplicable preternatural sight for perceiving rainfall ratio to acreage, we're told at the beginning of the sentence that he closed his eyes.

I leave it to the reader to consider the structure of the following sentences, their relevance, and the quality of the similes:
Gently as small birds landing on his mind came questions he no longer had to answer.
The fire sank low, like a beast curling to sleep.
Morgon, his eyes on the fire, felt his mind fill with faces …
He was almost unable to breathe.
He stirred, his face turning to Har's. Their eyes met [for] a moment in an unspoken knowledge of one another.
He paused, looking again at Har; his hands moved a little, helplessly, as though groping for a word.

I'm reminded of Jean Eggenschwiler's observation in his fantastic book Writing: Grammar, Usage, and Style, “Most can distinguish between solid content and inflated trivia.”
Danan drew a breath to speak, but said nothing.
He leaned forward, his face etched with fire, and roused the half-log on the hearth. A flurry of sparks burned in the air like fiery snow.

So flames from the hearth don't illuminate his face; they etch it with fire? And what is a half-log anyway? Isn't this comparable to half a hole? Isn't a hole, regardless its size, still a hole? And since when do sparks from a fire burn like snow, fiery or otherwise?
the wizards themselves, skilled, restless and arbitrary, would never had [sic] dreamed of trying to kill a land-ruler.

If the wizards are “arbitrary,” what's to prevent them from dreaming such a thing, or anything for that matter?
Morgon felt eyes on his face.

I assume this is comparable to feeling that you're being watched, but not only is this a poor choice of words, it's an utterly frivolous point to make, considering the fact that Morgon is eating in a public place. It stands to reason diners would steal occasional glances at fellow diners.

Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” I suspect a lot of fantasy fiction writers aren't particularly concerned about the quality of their writing. And why should they be? Some publishers clearly aren't concerned about their writing quality either. As a result, this genre gets a bad rep for pumping out the equivalent of glorified comic books. I can't speak for an audience so easily sated. Such low standards keep certain writers and publishers in business. I, on the other hand, remain disappointed. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss (2014)


Before commenting on this book, I need to give you some background. Just eleven days ago, BuzzFeed Books online posted “The 51 Best Fantasy Series Ever Written.” It listed Rothfuss at the top with his novel The Name of the Wind. Yesterday I drove to my local library, but that novel was checked out. So I grabbed his book The Slow Regard of Silent Things instead. I read it the same day. It's a short book.

Now we've all run across these sorts of online lists before. Last year I found the site “BestFantasyBooks.com, which boasts several lists: 100 Best Fantasy Novels, 100 Worst Fantasy Novels, Best Fantasy for Women, Best Fantasy for Children, Fantasy with Dragons, etc. And after recognizing some of the entries, some of which I'd read and considered crap, coupled with the fact that the site is maintained by a book critic whose writing – spelling errors and bad grammar galore – failed to inspire confidence in his skills in discernment, I ultimately dismissed that site as a waste of time.

Which might seem odd considering that back in my early twenties, when I wasn't the curmudgeon I am today, fantasy fiction was my favorite genre. I preferred stories about knights and elves and dragons much like a widow or a single mom might gravitate toward romance novels or erotica. But I was a child with regards to literature back then, having yet to experience Bradbury or Davies or Nabokov or Salinger or Steinbeck. In other words, I'd essentially lived on drive-thru fare and had never been to a four star restaurant. What did I know about fine dining? I was too busy championing the convenience of bland burgers sealed in Styrofoam.

In fact, by the time I'd reached the bottom of the book barrel of fantasy fiction in my mid-twenties, having already read Tolkien's Rings Trilogy, Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, and George McDonald's Princess duology, I moved on to the transient trash of some of the more contemporary fantasy writers. (I won't name names.) It was round this time that, in a moment of desperation, I accepted a boxed trilogy from a friend. A Dragonlance series by the writing couple Tracy Hickman and Margaret Wies. It shames me to recall that I actually recommended the first book to another friend who has since published nearly a dozen novels. This friend has read hundreds and hundreds of books.

Needless to say, he knew the difference between quality and crap. And I'll never forget what he said when I asked him what he thought of Dragons of Autumn Twilight, book one of that trilogy. His critique made me reconsider the quality of the junk food I'd been scarfing down my pie hole. I'm paraphrasing. “Pretty shallow. For one, the characters are flat. A bunch of stuff happens but nothing of real consequence to the story. There's no depth, no substance. Sheer escapism, really. Not my thang.”

Once I'd recovered from this bombshell I asked him whether he knew of any fantasy fiction that offered the kinds of things he was talking about. He recommended Stephen R. Donaldson's Covenant Chronicles. Anyone who knows me knows about my love affair with Donaldson's genius. Those books fried my brain. I soon realized not only what was possible but what awful rot I'd been reading. It was because of Donaldson that I became a writer.

The point is I'm no longer the indiscriminate fantasy fiction fan. In fact, I hesitate to mention this, but I've become that literary snob you were taught to avoid. I don't want to be cast out of the reading circles for my heresy before I'm ever invited, but I can't lie and pretend I fell in step with the Rowlings' fan base and her Harry Potter stuff. I read the first three books stoned, and it still didn't help. After reading masterpieces like Ivanhoe, Ben-Hur, The Iliad, the Odyssey, and Don Quixote, it's hard to find pleasure in R.A. Salvatore or Richard Monoco. (Okay, so I'm naming names after all.)

Before you dismiss my criticism as the ravings of a prude, I'd love to crack open any novel by, say, Graham Greene or Kipling or Mary Stewart and compare it to your favorite passages in, say, Terry Brook's Sword of Shannara. Then you can tell me whether Brooks' prose, in contrast, doesn't stink to high Heaven. After spending a few minutes examining some of the greats, I believe that you, too, will begin to recognize the difference between inspired storytelling and meandering muddle.

While I can't bemoan the realities of an indiscriminate fan base that devours mediocrity without question, I don't have to buy into the hype. There's a story about a certain publisher of fantasy fiction who was asked by a colleague about her decision to publish a certain work many regarded as a piece of shit. Her response was, “Look, most of our readers are children. They've read The Lord of the Rings 50 times. They want something new. They don't have discriminating tastes.”

I can't tell you how many times I've read reviews on Amazon.com in which the reader says, “Two out of five stars, but I'll probably read the rest in the series.” I can't help but wonder why, when there's so much wonderful literature out there, unless of course said reader is partial only with regards to genre.

Having said that, and to show what a hypocrite I am, I still plan to read the books listed on BuzzFeed's site, the ones I haven't read already, even though most of the few I've read on that list were of poor quality. One of the reasons I've decided to do this is because I write fantasy, and I think it's important to know the market. Not to be cruel, but one can learn from bad writers too, if only to confront what not to do. I've said this before: no serious writer has any legitimate excuse for pushing a bad manuscript anymore, to say nothing of some of these publishing houses that ship out this drivel. With access to writer's workshops and books that teach the mechanics of storytelling, character and plot development, as well as friends willing to read one's stuff and tell him or her whether what they've written is crap, we the reading public should be spared the inglorious experience of second rate novels.

With that in mind, I refer you to something Rothfuss said in the Author's Forward of his book The Slow Regard of Silent Things. “You might not want to buy this book.” Gratefully, I got my copy for free at the public library. “First, if you haven't read my other books, you don't want to start here.” Fair enough. I appreciate the heads-up. A few paragraphs later, he writes, “Second, even if you have read my other books, I think it's only fair to warn you that this is a bit of a strange story.” Had I known Rothfuss' definition of 'story' was 'a series of scenes lacking any character apart from the protagonist with no dialogue and no plot and no gradual building toward an ending let alone a climax,” I certainly would've dropped the book in favor of anything else from my stack of Books-To-Read-This-Year.

At the same time, and to be fair, I've read, and have enjoyed, plot-free novels. Though my friends enjoyed Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine more than I did, that's one example. Steinbeck's Travels with Charlie, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is another. And in Rothfuss's defense, I should point out the guy's not an awful prose writer. In fact, I'd go so far as to say his style, though rough round the edges, has a certain charm. Like Nabokov, he evidently enjoys word games and playing with homonyms. But Nabokov's word games never distracted from the flow of the writing. With Rothfuss, it's beyond distracting; it's downright confusing at times. I'm grateful this vignette is only 150 pages or so since I couldn't have gotten through a novel length version of what amounts to a meandering rough draft.

Lastly, at the back of the book, at the Author's Endnote, Rothfuss writes about this book: “It was weird and wrong and tangled and missing so many things that a story is supposed to need.” Having read the thing, I'd agree. He goes on to say that he'd never intended to write this 'story' and that he'd argued against the merits of this 'story' with a friend who claimed to like it. He goes on to talk about his writing in general, how “The Name of the Wind does a lot of things it's not supposed to do. The prologue is a laundry list of things you should never do as a writer.” He then justifies this approach by arguing that “Sometimes a story works because it's different.” Different and doing “... a lot of things it's not supposed to do” are two entirely different things. Look, I can empathize. I've written stuff I'll never show to anyone. But that's the difference. While I celebrate those hypnotic writing sessions when the Muse is whispering in your ear and you're typing furiously to keep up if only to discover what will happen next, there's a difference between this practice and the final performance or end product. Just ask any recitalist. Don't fall prey to what one critic has distinguished by saying “That's not writing; that's just typing.” If you publish your ramblings, expect to be chided.

As any good writer will tell you, part of the manuscript writing process involves dumping sometimes tens of thousands of words. Of my 150K word manuscript, I tossed at least that much, and yes, I would've preferred some anesthesia during some of that surgery. False starts, weak scenes, bad lines, and so on must be expunged from your finished work. Unless they're like me and frequent the public library, readers pay good money for books and deserve better.

Again, Rothfuss shows promise, and I think he could achieve great things. I was encouraged to read that he has dozens of beta readers. I wish I could lay claim to dozens. I just wish his beta readers had more discriminating tastes or demanded the sorts of things good stories require, such as a plot, character development, and scenes that effect the story's outcome. But I'm not about to outline what any number of good books on the subject could teach him.


The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for ...