Monday, July 25, 2011

The Last Letter from Your Lover

The Last Letter from Your Lover has a similar premise to a Sophie Kinsella novel I read earlier this year: Remember Me?. In both of these novels, a London woman wakes up from a terrible accident with amnesia to find that she is trapped in a loveless marriage, but harboring a secret lover on the side. At first, I was disgruntled by the obvious similarities, but then two things from my college classes came to mind.

The first: that there are a defined number of plots into which all stories--movies, TV shows, or books—fall. These “universal plots” or “master stories” have been catalogued in number anywhere from 7 to 36. Thirty-six seems a bit too many. But I generally liked this list of 7, compiled by Christopher Booker:

1. Tragedy
2. Comedy
3. Overcoming the Monster
4. The Quest
5. Voyage and Return
6. Rebirth
7. Rags to Riches

I’m having fun thinking of different books and movies and what universal plot(s) they represent. The other thing I remembered is something my Creative Writing professor said: that style--rather than subject--defines quality. A mundane action or moment described beautifully is better than a suspenseful or high-action scene portrayed poorly. The professor used a passage from Portrait of a Lady to illustrate this point, one in which there is little action, but much beauty. That teacher is the reason I bought PoaL, though I haven’t yet read it.

So, no story is original, and it is the style rather than the subject that counts. If you gave a roomful of writers the assignment to create a story of an amnesiac woman who has a husband and a secret lover, you will get as many different stories as there are writers. Some would end tragically, others would end happily. Vampires would probably appear in one and in another, the woman would reject the male species entirely and journey to India to find herself. In that vein, these two novels were completely different. Moyes' book satisfies in a way that Kinsella's doesn't, though I enjoyed Remember Me? also.

TLLFYL was a thrillingly beautiful book. The style, the words, the emotions it describes are all beautiful. The word perfect comes to mind, but that isn't true. TLLFYL tells the story of a woman who doesn't fit in in her world. She struggles to find herself while yearning for a love that means something. Real and powerful emotions are depicted in a compelling narrative voice. The structure was carefully done; the book began with Jennifer Stirling waking from her accident into an unknown world with a domineering husband, soon finding a passionate love letter in a shoebox in her closet. The next chapter takes us to the beginning of the affair, where Jennifer, months earlier, meets her lover, the writer of the letter. The author alternates between past and present in a way that maximizes suspense while advancing the story. Part III introduces a modern (2003 London) element into the story, which serves to both parallel the story set up in Parts I and II, and illuminate it. At first, I wasn't sure how I felt about the new approach and new characters so late in the book, but in the end, I liked it.

This book celebrates the beauty of a lover's words. Jennifer falls in love, at least a little bit, with her lover because of his faculty with words. Their relationship is grounded and elevated by words: his mastery of them and her inadequacy. He defines "vicariously" to her early in their affair: "Deriving pleasure from another's pleasure." And that one word repeated to each other throughout their relationship, spanning distance and years, contains a world of meaning. Every time I read it I felt a little shiver of something, word-lust, I guess. It was a promise, desire, heartache, longing, sadness, fear, love... all in one word. Vicariously.

I LOVED this book. Grade: A

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some Favorites

The human heart longs for beauty—to create it, experience it, glorify it. I’ve always been enthralled by the beauty of the written word. Music speaks to some of beauty, for others, it is art, or nature, or dance. For me, it is books.

I’ve found that the passages that affect me the most are:

1. simple but fresh observations of life and humanity

2. flawless lines showing an author’s command of language

3. words that convey the power of love (because I love love!)

1. Simple but fresh observations of life and humanity

Sometimes writers capture a human experience—petty or profound—in a beautiful and insightful way. It is startling to see on the page, in a lucid form, some random garbled bit of an idea or experience I’ve fleetingly thought or had, myself. It’s like a writer reached into my head, picked out a bit of the nonsensical jibberish flapping around, and finessed it into a lovely passage. Like:

Intermittently, she caught the gist of his sentences and supplied the rest from her subconscious, as one picks up the striking of a clock in the middle with only the rhythm of the first uncounted strokes lingering in the mind.
-Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald

When I read this passage, (in France, in 2004) I thought to myself, “yes! I know what he means!” Who would have thought to describe that event, this moment? I wouldn’t, but that passage has stuck with me for seven years.

Or this line, by the lyrical Ann Patchett, from her novel, Bel Canto:

...A most remarkable thing happened: he found her again, like something he never knew was missing, like a song he had memorized in his youth and had then forgotten.

And this thought I've had, in Margaret Atwood's words, from Cat's Eye:

Another belief of mine: that everyone else my age is an adult, whereas I am merely in disguise.

2. Flawless lines showing an author's command of language

Rarely does a reader encounter a combination of words and syllables and sounds that makes a perfect phrase. Just writing about this makes me cringe at the failure of my own words. There are some sentences that I have memorized just to savor the beauty of them.

She sat at the window and watched the evening invade the avenue.

-James Joyce, Dubliners: “Eveline”

I love the repetition of sounds. The s, the w, and especially the v in evening, invade, avenue. There is no great TRUTH about life or love or humanity in these words, no powerful experience or emotion. Maybe it means something in the context of the story, but I don’t remember. Just the beauty of words.

And this passage, from John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley. You just feel the essence of the man in this passage, and I love the choice of the words violently and violence. I love words used in unusual but exquisite ways:

A kind of second childhood falls on so many men. They trade their violence for the promise of a small increase in life span… I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slobbed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy, and taken my hangovers as consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage… in my own life I am not willing to trade quantity for quality.

3. Words that convey the power of love

OK, I could get carried away here, because probably 85% of the passages I add to my quotation binder from books I read fall into this category. But I'll limit myself. Here's one from a book I just finished, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. It's a lovely book. Here's my favorite line:

Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.

And to go back to the classic, Wuthering Heights:

Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same.

I've loved that line since I was 17, when I dreamed about meeting a boy whose soul was made of the same stuff that mine was.

And this passage, beautiful for the intimacy in such a chaste moment. Except I understand that the kissing of a palm was a very racy thing back in the day. Nobody does this anymore, and that's too bad.

He took her hand before she could extend it, tore off the black mitten, raised the hand slowly to his lips and kissed her palm. Then he turned quickly and walked away. The snow creaked under his feet. The sound and the figure melted into the darkness, while she was still standing motionless, her hand outstretched, until a little white flake fluttered onto her palm, onto the unseen treasure she was afraid to spill.

-We the Living (Ayn Rand)

Monday, July 11, 2011

One Weekend... Three Books

I finished one novel and read two other books this weekend... ranging across the spectrum from an inspirational based-on-true-life story of forgiveness and love to a YA novel set in modern-day England revolving around the taboo subject of.... um... incest. But first:

I finished Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. This book was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2002, which is why I read it; the winner that year was Life of Pi, which is also on my to-read shelf. Set in Victorian England, the title is derived from the slang term for pickpocket. The plot revolves around a den of pick-pockets, baby-smugglers, con artists... Who can you trust? Who is conning who? A well-written book that gives a vivid portrait of the times, it dragged on a bit too long for me because I lost interest in all the cons going on.

A writer's power is one of influence and seduction. It is in her power to create in the reader an emotional attachment, a visceral reaction to characters. Whether a character is morally corrupt, sinister, criminal, or possesses any other repugnant quality, if the web of words is strong enough, the reader can be caught--rapt, bewitched, connected--just as the writer intended her to be. But Fingersmith didn't snag me up in any silky web; I felt no emotion for the pickpockets and con artists, and not because of their trades. I didn't care what happened to them, simply because the author didn't make me feel for them. But in the last book in this post, I was caught up in a web of emotion, connected to characters with a shortcoming even more corrupt than picking pockets...

The Heart Mender by Andy Andrews is an unbelievable story about redemption and new love set on the Gulf Coast of Alabama in WW II. In the 21st century, the author digs up the stump of a tree on his small island off of the Alabama coast and finds a metal can filled with Nazi buttons, rings, artifacts, and three photographs. He sets out to solve the "mystery" of the can and its contents. In the 1940s, a woman, widowed by war, encounters a wounded man washed up on the Alabama beach in front of her house. Who is he and where did he come from?

These are some crazy historical facts I learned in the reading of this book:

-Nazi submarines infested the waters of the eastern US and the Gulf of Mexico, sinking freighters and ships transporting food and supplies to our troops. The sinkings and bombings rarely made US newspapers. I had no idea they were ever this close to American soil.

-When US troops captured and boarded one Nazi submarine off of the Gulf Coast, they found fresh veggies and empty Campbell's soup cans onboard. As one character in the book said, "Well, they aren't going back to Berlin every few days to refuel, now are they?" Even more eerie, found in the pockets of several of the German sailors on that captured submarine: ticket stubs from a New Orleans movie theatre.

At times the story reads like a hokey Hallmark movie when the author is really trying to impart his life lesson of "forgiveness" through the story. It might have been better served to let the story speak for itself and to allow the reader to interpret how she may.

The third book, Forbidden, by Tabitha Suzuma, piqued my interest when I watched my friend Sara’s video chat on her blog, I have never read anything about this subject [consensual incest], so I: a) wanted to see how the author handled it; b) see how it reads, classified as a YA novel; and c) let's face it, I was curious.

This book illustrates well the power that a skilled writer can have over her readers. By the end of this story, I sympathized with Lochan and Maya, I even rooted for them, I dreamed of ways they could escape their life, change their names and live happily-ever-after. Disgusting, you may think, and it is, but I can truly see how this forbidden love became their coping mechanism, their means of surviving and enduring.

Lochan and Maya have three younger siblings that they are entirely responsible for, and have been since they were 12 and 13, when their dad left and their mom became an absent drunk. Lochan and Maya raise the kids, balance the checkbook, do the chores, cook dinner, make sure everybody does their homework, and try to be teenagers themselves in the midst of the chaos. They have been forced, by circumstances out of their control to: a) become adults at an early age and b) work in tandem (as partners) to manage a household and raise siblings. Because of the neglect and abuse by their parents, they have adopted an “us against the world” mentality. Slowly, their relationship comes to mean more to them than just mere friendship. Most readers, I assume, begin the book, as I did, finding this love to be incomprehensible and disgusting, but by the end, they may be surprised to find that while it still makes them squeamish, the main thing they feel is sympathy for Lochan and Maya. Life has knocked these kids down over and over again. They have nothing but each other

Bottom line: This book ravaged me emotionally. I didn’t think that I would be swept up in their plight and actually actually root for them. But I did. And you feel the whole time, you just feel the book barreling toward disaster… tragedy awaits. I can’t say that I “liked” this book. Can you say you liked a book about a romantic relationship between a brother and his sister? But I was intrigued by it, it was well-written, the voices of the two kids were so compelling that by the end I understood the inevitability of their love; the angst, the pain, the fear, the joy the relationship brings to them. However, I do not think I would classify this as YA literature. I think it’s a book for adults about teenagers.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns

This is the story of a teenage boy, an old man, and a town. The boy is going through the growing pains of adolescence. The old man is experiencing the growing pains of age. The town, Cold Sassy Tree, Georgia, is scandalized by their adventures and shenanigans in a way that only a small town can be.

It is through the teenage voice of Will Tweedy that we learn that his grandpa, E. Rucker Blakeslee, remarries when his first wife, Will's Granny, is barely three weeks dead. Miss Love Simpson is less than half Mr. Blakeslee’s age and a Yankee to boot! [dontcha just lovelovelove the names of these characters? Is that Southern for ya, or what?] Of course, the family and the town are in an uproar and Will is thrust into the middle of the action as a confidante and friend to both Grandpa Blakeslee and Miss Love.

Cold Sassy Tree is a lesser-known Southern classic, set in the days when old men walked the South with the wounds of the Confederacy evident on their bodies and in their hearts. This setting and era hasn’t been written about much and because of that, I would have liked to have had Will Tweedy describe race relations more. But every book can’t be To Kill a Mockingbird, I guess.

Will Tweedy is a refreshing narrator, ingenuous and honest. I loved his voice when he expresses his confusing feelings about his new step-granny—who is closer to his age than his grandfather's and is quite voluptuous and lovely—as well as his attraction to Lightfoot, a blonde-haired girl from the mill district at the edge of town. Will traipses across the countryside with his dog Theodore Roosevelt (T.R. for short: he doesn't want anyone to know that his dog is named for a Republican president), having adventures, escaping death, and getting into trouble in a refreshing down-home country boy way (mice in the church, etc.).

I couldn’t decide how I felt about Will Tweedy. I guess I demand a lot from protagonists. I want them to give everything for love, to have uncommon courage and integrity, to have a long-sightedness beyond their years, compassion for those less-fortunate. In short, I want them to be perfect, with a dose of mischievousness on the side. ;) So naturally, Will Tweedy fell short, because of course, he is only human.

I would have liked Will Tweedy better if he had given into his romantic feelings for Lightfoot. But would that have made it a better story? A town boy who defies convention and runs off with the poor mill girl? It would have become a romance in the vein of other stories of star-crossed lovers. Or, is it a better story because, when the boy can’t have/doesn’t let himself get the girl, it depicts what is Real and what is True, even if what is Real and True isn’t romantic or admirable?

I think one of the multifarious (I remember when I learned this word!) benefits and joys of reading is that through it, one can learn about the human experience. One doesn’t have to experience betrayal to feel its sting. One can feel the adrenaline of the chase or the theft or the kill without performing a criminal act. I can feel the pang of loss, the rush of a first crush, the fear of imminent death, all while sitting safely in my apartment with my husband and my cat by my side. These emotions and experiences are all True and Real to someone, maybe not what is right or what makes a swashbuckling story. Will definitely responds to his feelings for Lightfoot in a way that is real, if not swoonworthy... he reacts with weakness and insecurity.

I would have enjoyed this book either way… as sweeping romance or depiction of true life of a Georgia boy in the early 1900s. But who are we kidding? I’m a hopeless romantic and I ALWAYS want the boy to get the girl.