Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Perfect Stranger, by Danielle Steel (1981)

I've never been in love, but I'm not the least bit averse to the idea. Not for myself, of course. At 51, that flat-bottomed skiff has set sail. But I've seen couples clearly in love and it warms my heart. Romantic love is a rare and precious thing and I wish those who've found it all the joy and blessings I can muster. I'm also not averse to reading romance fiction. Some of it, such as McCullough's The Ladies of Missalonghi, is not only a good story but well written.

Having heard so much about the famous romance author Danielle Steel, I decided to seek out her work at my local used book store. When I saw this novel for a nickel in the bargain bin, my heart grabbed a jump rope and skipped all the way down the block, singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady, figuratively of course.

Granted, I've read only a handful of romance novels so far, but Penny Jordan's Marriage Without Love is decent, A Perfect Choice by Laura Parker, which I read years ago, is certainly serviceable, and, as I say, McCullough's Ladies is a treat.

Steel's story itself is not deplorable. In fact, I'm sure it would make for a decent television feature on the Lifetime channel, if it hasn't been made into one already. But the writing is amateurish. For one, everything is described in excess, sometimes with amusing results. The following lines, while repetitive, are from different scenes.
... the rivers of tears pouring silently down her face.
Alex looked as though an earthquake had struck him, right between the eyes.
'What is it, Raphraella?' His voice was so gentle that it brought tears to her eyes.
... as two steady rivers of tears flowed into the pillow ...
... her eyes still pouring tears down her face.
Equally disappointing is paragraph structure. While it's true I favor avoiding the 'he said, she said' attribution when it's obvious who's speaking (some fine writers achieve this by grouping what is said in the same paragraph with what that person is doing or thinking), Steel's method, in contrast, is a mess. She not only avoids using the 'he said, she said' attribution, she combines one character's actions and reactions with another character's lines. This made for some confusing conversations. I'll spare you examples.

Some of the writing was simply strange or counterintuitive.
... they clung together that way for what seemed a very long time.
To whom precisely did this clinging seem 'a very long time'? This couple loves one another. Therefore, shouldn't any length of time spent together seem all too brief? It's a time honored tradition for we mortals to regret how soon good times end, regardless their duration. Conversely, a short interval that feels long is normally reserved for moments of displeasure or discomfort. 'The few days Margaret was away felt to John like a lifetime.' Or 'They tortured Bob for only eight minutes, but to Bob it felt like hours.'

Here the protagonist Raphaella is taking a walk along the grounds of her parent's estate. Her surroundings include palm trees and flower gardens and fountains and even bird-shaped hedges. “... but Raphaella saw none of it as she walked along thinking of Alex [italics mine]. All she could think of was the letter Kay had sent her father and that she would not give in to his [her father’s] threats.”

Raphaella's father is not Alex; Kay is not Alex. If 'all [Raphaella] could think of' is the letter Kay sent to her father and that she wouldn't give in to her father's threats, why are we first told she was 'thinking of Alex'?

At one point Raphaella's mother tells her: “'But to play with people who … want more from you, who have hopes for something you can't give, is a cruelty, Raphaella. More than that it's irresponsible.'”

Is Raphaella's mother suggesting that irresponsibility is worse than cruelty? Shouldn't this be the other way round? I'm reminded of an ad for a Law & Order episode in which the plot was summarized as follows: 'A convicted murderer is suspected of racism.' As if his racist views are at least as important as his having committed murder.

Steel reminds me of a school girl scribbling in her dream journal. Everything is written gushingly. The tone is sophomoric, not to mention vague and hyperbolic. I can imagine Steel substituting the dots over her lower case i's for balloon hearts. To constantly claim this was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen or that she'd never felt as wonderful in all her life as she did at that very moment or that this was the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for her was not only tedious but unnecessary. And woe to the reader who makes a drinking game out of Steel's frequent uses of the modifiers really and very.

Tragically, despite her popularity, Steel simply can't properly convey what better writers can. A novel shouldn't be a summary of a couple in love but potentially a series of memorable moments for the reader, a romance experienced vicariously, a chance to evoke in the reader the feelings Steel claims her characters are experiencing. But the following excerpt serves as a troubling example of what to expect:
They sat there for a while, talking, looking into the fire, talking about themselves, about each other, about what had happened to them, and what they had felt, and then suddenly they were talking about other things, about people, about things that had amused them, about funny moments, as though for six months they had stored it all.
Setting aside the indistinct redundancies, the above paragraph reads more like a general suggestion about a scene rather than an actual account or instance, where an immediate scene would be far more effective. A moment of warm exchanges, some mild humor perhaps, a recurring habit one of them recognizes and teases the other one about, etc. Even a bit of dialogue, if handled well, could better define the particulars of their affection for one another, which in turn would help the reader sympathize with the couple. Instead, we're subjected to a rather spongy summary of unnamed things, unidentified people, and alleged amusements. The reader is outside looking in, and, I might add, the view is through a rather opaque plate of glass.

I realize that vivid, evocative, descriptive writing is more challenging than bland, imprecise drivel, but it isn't as if I'm bemoaning one’s genetics. Good writing can be taught; precision with language can be acquired. And these skills, unlike popularity or earnings, separate the pro from the amateur. I know I shouldn't be disappointed great writers remain obscure while hacks laugh all the way to the bank, but I can't help it. Puppy love makes me cringe. Conversely, when it comes to good writing, I'm a love sick fool. Two out of five stars. R

Thursday, December 22, 2016

marriage without love, Penny Jordan (1981)

This is probably only the second Harlequin Romance I've read, and I'm reminded of a behind the scenes special about the writers of the hit TV show 24 who took pride in the criticism leveled against a nighttime soap they wrote decades before called Knott's Landing. They quoted the critic as having written, “Dumb but never dull.” That sums up this novel.

Enter Briony, a bitter but beautiful young secretary dumped by a reporter named Kieron, who, we’re given to understand through a series of flashbacks, had briefly dated and slept with Briony in order to acquire a scoop from her about Briony’s roommate's brother (a wanted criminal in hiding). Kieron then left Briony, presumably without calling, leaving a note or a forwarding address. When his story hits the paper, Briony is indignant. Understandably, she’s convinced Kieron merely used her. Briony’s roommate’s brother is arrested; furious, Briony’s roommate kicks her out of the apartment.

Unbeknownst to Kieron, one of their illicit nights together produced a son, Nicky. Three years later, Kieron returns when he's offered the position of boss at a newspaper where Briony works. Once there, Kieron treats Briony horribly. He’s overbearing and cruel. Briony in turn feels trapped. Unsuccessful finding employment elsewhere, she resolves to remain at the newspaper and make the best of it. But Kieron relentlessly insinuates himself into her life until he discovers that she produced a child and that the boy is his son.

Kieron demands Briony marry him for the sake of the child. Briony, hating Kieron for bailing on her after he got his scoop, seeks alternative measures. (I don't know where the court's sympathies were in Great Britain for single mothers in 1981, but Briony is convinced that if she challenges Kieron in court, Kieron would win custody of her son and that she might never see her boy again.) And so reluctantly but convinced she's out of options, Briony marries Kieron who, as far as the reader is concerned, is a despicable excuse for a man.

Up to this point in the story, I was incredulous as to whether women care for this sort of romance. Granted, the man is tall, dark and handsome, and he's certainly got an inexhaustible supply of testosterone, but his cruel and threatening approach toward Briony is contemptible and sometimes shocking. He occasionally manhandles her in ways best described as battery. Granted, this was published in 1981, when male chauvinism in the workplace got a pass or at least didn't face the same consequences it presumably does today. And, admittedly, one of the reasons I kept reading this supposed romance was to determine whether this is really, deep down, what women enjoy reading. Briony herself appears both repelled and aroused by Kieron's behavior toward her. I've got to assume some readers are either not as bothered by his behavior as I am or that they believe his well-chiseled features trump charm.

But can a man, despite his physical attributes, actually appeal to a woman when he demonstrates such a dangerous temper? A few years ago, I would've said no, but I've since met such a woman, and apart from causing me to lose faith in the fairer sex, it's conditioned me to find the relationship between Briony and Kieron, sadly, more credible. I guess, naively, I never thought such women read.

At any rate, my fascination kept me turning the pages. I had to find out whether this miserable relationship would find resolution or whether the story would end with Briony despondent, if not, strangely, concurrently aroused by her husband and his brutish ways.

Toward the end of the story we learn via Kieron's godmother that Kieron hadn't exactly bailed on Briony three years ago after all. Instead, Kieron had been abruptly required to fly to Angola to cover some violent outbreak there, leaving Briony a note she never got but Kieron assumed she had. (Briony, confronted with this revelation, considers the note to have been intercepted by her roommate out of revenge for the information Briony unwittingly provided Kieron about her roommate's fugitive brother). In addition to the note, Kieron had mailed Briony a letter she never received. Shortly thereafter Kieron had been captured by that country's aggressors, nearly died, lost the will to live (since he assumed Briony had ignored his letter), and ultimately, when accepting the post as boss at the paper she worked for three years later, was shocked to discover not only that Briony worked there but that she wanted nothing to do with him. For the purposes of plot, this secret was never discussed at any point throughout the novel until the penultimate scene so that the reader could, presumably, enjoy the reconciliation sex.

Prior to this revelation, however, watching these two figuratively go at each other's throats, I couldn't stop turning the pages. Serviceable writing, indignant characters, cheeky dialogue, sex scenes that today would qualify as rape, and sexual tension that, while I suspect was meant to be provocative, actually stunned me. If that's not an endorsement for a novel, despite my better judgement, I don't know what qualifies. Three out of five stars. R

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Cat Who Saw Stars, Lilian Jackson Braun (1998)

This marks the tenth The Cat Who … novel I've read, and because the quality of these tales generally varies from great to garbage, I've decided to call it quits with the series. The problem is I never know whether I'll be treated to a well written who dun it or an utter dud. One novel might deliver on a classic murder mystery with the added bonus of a quirky moonlighting detective and his enigmatic cats. The standard fare from Braun. These follow a well-established and welcome formula: someone dies; foul play is suspected; and whether prodded by an inexplicable bristling sensation along his mustache or by the prescient behavior of his Siamese cat Koko, our beloved sleuth Qwilleran sets to work on solving the case. This develops into well plotted scenes, intriguing suspects, and a satisfying finish.

The next novel, however, might read like a journal adaptation by an octogenarian chronicling her fervor for food, fashion, felines, and fellowship. The problem with the latter is that said novels offer little to no tension, suspense, or mystery. Whatever murder occurs near the beginning of such a book is treated as either an afterthought or a nuisance for the characters involved, all of whom would clearly prefer to discuss their cats, attend the local theatre, frequent their favorite restaurant, browse the local antique shop, and plan the next charity benefit.

Saw Stars is another one of those. Braun is a good prose writer; I just wish she'd fulfilled her role more consistently, not as an aging senior citizen fictionalizing her own social life and its rather drab subject matter. How many stars the cat saw in this novel was never addressed. Which is fine. Unfortunately, for this review, I count only two. Rated G

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Why Do We Say It? The Stories Behind the Words, Expressions and Clich├ęs We Use, Castle Books (1985)

Being a lover of words, I've often wondered about the origins of certain terms and expressions I've heard throughout my life, and for years I'd sought out books that expounded on them. Bon mots, adages, idioms, that sort of stuff has intrigued me for as long as I can recall. This book is the closest I've come to that kind of thing.

In this book, we find quite a few curious, sometimes amusing, tales about how some of these words and sayings allegedly came about. Some expressions, such as 'Learn By Heart' (or as I've often heard it said, 'I know it by heart'), as well as 'Learn by Rote' date back to antiquity. Others, such as 'quiz,' and 'Flash in the Pan,' are only a few hundred years old. Some terms and expressions are corruptions of their original, such as 'Nuts in May,' which was initially 'knots in May' as in 'sprigs of flowers,' which do come out in May. A few I knew: Carry Coals to Newcastle, Doubting Thomas, Drink Like a Fish, Baker's Dozen, C.O.D., Gordian Knot, Supercilious. Others I didn't know: Uncle Sam, Two Bits, Upbraid, Lavender, Honeymoon. Others I'd never heard before: In the Swim, Heater Piece, Fit in the Arm, Badge of Poverty.

Having served in the U.S. Navy, I participated in a silly ceremony out at sea when our fleet crossed the equator. The ceremony involved a series of games and mock trials on deck and the expression Davy Jones' Locker was repeated ad nauseam. In this book, we find that Jones is merely a corruption of Jonah's, the character in The Bible who was thrown into the sea. And Davy is a corruption of the West Indian Black person's name for a ghost or spirit, which is a duffy. So the phrase means “the locker of the spirit of Jonah.”

Although both fun and educational, this book isn't formatted as well as I'd like. Every explanation is preceded by both the word or phrase and then a question, which also incorporates that word or phrase. Only then do we reach the explanation, which, again, usually includes the word or phrase. Here's a random sample:
Tip. What is the reason we call a gratuity a “tip”?
Years ago in English inns and taverns it was customary for the patrons to drop a coin for the benefit of waiters into a box placed on the walls. On the box was a little sign which said: “To insure promptness.” Later just the initials of the phrase were put on the box – T.I.P.
Introducing the explanation simply with “Tip as a gratuity” might be a decent compromise, which could then be followed by, “Years ago ...” and so on. Here's another:
Stool Pigeon. Where did the “stool pigeon” get that name?
Don't ask us; just tell us. I realize the purpose of first listing the word or expression is to aid in the alphabetization of the entries. But in the above cases, as well as in hundreds of others, the questions that follow aren't necessary. That might seem like a small thing, but hundreds of entries each followed by a redundant eight to fifteen word question means thousands of superfluous words throughout the course of the book. Reminds me of the redundancy found at a spelling bee.

The word is tip.”

Tip? Could I have the definition please?”

Tip. Noun. The end of something. A sum of money given as a gratuity. Verb. To topple over. To strike softly. To hit the ball with the side of the bat so that it bounces off. Tip.”

Tip? Could I have the word in a sentence please?”

I gave the fool a tip on a horse. He decided to tip the horse over. The horse landed on the tip of its nose. Tip.”

Tip. May I have the origin please?”

You've tipped my hand, kid. Your time has elapsed. Here's a tip. Study harder for next year's spelling bee.” 

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Ladies of Missalonghi, Colleen McCullough (1987)

McCullough is the author of The Thorn Birds, which became a TV special many years ago. I think I was a teen at the time. I didn't watch it. I haven't read the novel yet, either. Ladies is quite good. Twenty pages shy of 200 and centered round a protagonist who desires above all else to get married, this qualifies as a romance, a genre to which I've only recently devoted more of my reading time. But the fine writing, endearing characters, tasteful love scenes, and absorbing happenings kept me turning the pages. For one, the writing is exquisite; the characters are often witty, and I found myself laughing out loud in a few spots. The twist at the end was both strange and unexpected, but because it was treated so well, I not only bought into it, I found it moving, too. I plan to read more from her. Five out of five stars. PG-13

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Silas Marner, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans Cross), Afterward by Walter Allen (1861)

Early in the story, Silas Marner, a poor weaver accused of a crime he didn't commit, is ostracized by his fellow church friends and decides to move away from his home town to establish himself elsewhere. 

Having lost his faith in both God and humanity, he sustains himself for years by weaving and selling his goods in his new, adopted country, all the while saving most of his earnings until accumulating a hefty hoard.

Silas’ new neighbors consider him a misanthrope. And for good reason. His sole purpose is to accumulate wealth from his weaving and, apart from occasionally interacting with the patrons who commissioned his services, he keeps to himself. His accumulated wealth is his everything. Nightly he extracts his earnings from bags he stashes in a cubbyhole in his house and eagerly counts the coins.

Until one night when he steps outside and his house is robbed. Silas is devastated. That same night, however, minutes later in fact, he confronts an orphan child of two on all fours at the threshold of his cottage door. Her presence, over time, inspires him to find a reason to not only live but to live well, by giving rather than hoarding.

It's a touching story of greed, betrayal, dissolution, love, and sacrifice. The writing is exquisite. Every page has at least one passage worth reading out loud to a reader friend. Highly recommended. Five out of five stars. Rated G

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Philosophy, 2nd Edition, Jay Stevenson, Ph.D

A good summary of the history of philosophy, the key philosophers, when they lived, and their ideas. Ironically, this is my only complaint. The word guide is in the title of the book. Yet this is not a guide to philosophy but rather a summary of the history of philosophy. The book chronicles the contributions of philosophers; it doesn’t explore the philosophical ideas themselves. Which is fine. I still enjoyed it. Just somewhat misleading. Four out of five stars.