Tag Archives: fiction

Review: “Plots” by Robert L. Belknap

30 Jul

Plots by Robert L Belknap cover

Plots

Robert L. Belknap. Introduction by Robin Feuer Miller

Columbia University Press, May 2016.

200 pages

Available in Hardcover and E-book.

Amazon | Goodreads

I thank Columbia University Press and Netgalley for providing an electronic review copy of this book.

My Review

You may never look at a story the same way again after reading Robert Belknap’s incisively clear and illuminating book, titled simply, Plots. In her very helpful Introduction, Robin Feuer Miller calls Belknap’s achievement “a magnum opus that is particular, profound, original, and short.” I absolutely agree. The first part of the book presents the fundamental dynamic that authors use to create plots: the active arrangement (and re-arrangement) of incidents in the story world to make a narrative for the reader. Belknap’s explanation of the varieties of ways incidents can be linked is indeed particular and profound.  The second part of the book analyzes two test cases, Shakespeare’s King Lear and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As a Slavic languages expert and scholar of Dostoevsky, Belknap is especially at home writing about the distinctive tools Dostoevsky uses in his novels, but he has insights to offer on numerous authors and genres, which I will mention.

Let’s begin, as Belknap does, with his definition of plot and one very fundamental distinction, which will pry open the toolbox used by storytellers in many different genres. Belknap states his definition of “plot” in several related ways:

“Plots arrange literary experience.” (title of Chapter 1)

“Plots are ways of relating incidents to one another.”

“Plots are purposeful arrangements of experience.”

All of these are true, and each adds a little nuance. I like the third one because of that word “purposeful.” Belknap is particularly astute at uncovering an author’s probable purpose in choosing to arrange incidents one way rather than another.

Now for that key distinction: fabula versus siuzhet. These are Russian words drawn from Russian formalism, an approach to story structure put forward by Vladimir Propp in his 1928 book Morphology of the Folktale and also by Viktor Shklovsky. But we don’t need to go back to these sources to figure out this pair of concepts; just read Belknap’s title for Chapter 3:

The Fabula Arranges the Events in the World the Characters Inhabit; the Siuzhet Arranges the Events in the World the Reader Encounters in the Text

In other words, the fabula is the “true” arrangement of incidents in the story world as they “happened” to the characters. The siuzhet arranges these incidents to present to  readers in the readers’ world. In short fairy tales, these two arrangements usually track each other quite closely. But longer stories often employ big discrepancies between them. Flashbacks or other devices for telling events out of chronological order are familiar ways in which the siuzhet can diverge from the fabula to create the readers’ experience.  The murder mystery Memento (written and directed by Christopher Nolan) is an extreme example since the film systematically separates the narrative order from the “real” order in the world of the main character (played by Guy Pearce). Dr Steve Aprahamian made a graph relating the two different timelines.

640px-memento_timeline

By Dr Steve Aprahamian (Picture of a chart created in Microsoft Excel) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Belknap points out that both the fabula and the siuzhet are arrangements of incidents fabricated in the creation of a work of fiction and, furthermore, they are closely interdependent. How do we as readers discover the fabula, the true order of events? Only by the narration, in whatever order the author chooses to reveal its incidents. Conversely, there can be no narration unless we presume an underlying chronology of events in the fictional world. The narration is only “out of order” with respect to it.

Manipulating incidents in narration then becomes the whole work of storytelling, something that modern narrative technique sometimes takes to new heights of bizarreness in the effort to find original ways of splitting and dissecting that bond between fabula and siuzhet. The fabula is inherently mimetic, a representation of our four-dimensional world (three dimensions of space, one dimension of time), whereas the siuzhet is rhetorical, one-dimensional or linear in the sense that, in the telling, incidents are fed to the reader one at a time (unless she flips back and forth!)–“shaped to make the reader share and participate in the action of the text.”  Belknap notes that detective stories achieve suspense when the fabula outpaces the siuzhet, leaving the reader in ignorance about “who-done-it” until the end when the siuzhet catches up, so to speak, in a revelatory scene. Dramatic irony occurs, he says, “when the siuzhet outpaces the fabula and characters living within the fabula act in ignorance of some fact in their world that the audience already knows.” These are the times that you want to shout at the characters to tell them what is really going on!  Shakespeare used dramatic irony very effectively in his plays. We wish we could tell Romeo that Juliet is not really dead, as she appears, and thereby stop his hasty suicide.  We wish we could disabuse Othello of Iago’s cruel deception and save Desdemona.

Belknap argues that, although much narrative theory has gravitated toward its uses in characterization, narrative manipulation of plot (siuzhet) can be just as fundamental for achieving the goals of a novel, including characterization. He will return to this theme in his analysis of Crime and Punishment and the character of Raskolnikov.

Before he gets there, he offers many more examples of how all this works in practice. He asserts that there are only a small set of ways that one incident can be related to another: chronologically, spatially, causally, associatively, or narratively. These apply somewhat differently in the siuzhet and in the fabula. Belknap carefully explains the many possible variations and their ramifications. I will give just a few highlights.

He notes that Homer’s device of beginning in medias res, in the middle of things, is simply a matter of starting the siuzhet in the middle of the fabula. And then somewhere during the siuzhet, someone will narrate the incidents that came before. In the Odyssey, the epic opens ten years after the Trojan War and Odysseus has already suffered much in his long homecoming voyage; his wife Penelope is besieged by suitors at home and their son Telemachus has grown up. When Odysseus escapes from Calypso, he is shipwrecked and seeks shelter with the Phaiakians, being led to their king by the beautiful princess Nausicaa. Accepting their hospitality, Odysseus eventually reveals who he is and recounts his adventures up to that point. This retrospective narrative, manipulating the chronology of telling, actually serves to reduce the dramatic tension as he describes his encounter with the dangerous Cyclops, Polyphemos, for example. We know he will escape from the one-eyed giant because he is there telling the story!  Why would Homer want to reduce the tension? I think it is because this incident functions as a warrior’s tale, to illustrate a key aspect of Odysseus’ character–his cleverness. The real dramatic climax is ahead, when at last Odysseus returns home and he must face the large band of suitors who have taken over his house.  With his own skill and the help of his son Telemachus, he defeats them, but as readers we won’t know the outcome of this bloody fight until it is shown to us, when the fabula and the siuzhet chronologies have merged again.

Belknap notes that many incidents in Sherlock Holmes stories are organized spatially, contrasting inside (221B Baker Street) with outside (where crimes take place) or subdividing the outside locations into London crimes versus those in the countryside (such as the moors of the Baskervilles). Lewis Carroll’s Alice visits a place that is both chronologically and spatially disconnected from England; Belknap says that she enters “a separate looking-glass time system, and the rabbit hole leaves her not under land but in Wonderland.” The Arabian Nights present a complex set of relations. There is a causal connection in the fabula between Scheherazade’s telling of her stories and her nights spent with the Caliph; her stories, however, are often related narratively to each other, as one story leads to another, often in several layers of embedding.

Allegories like The Pilgrim’s Progress are good examples of associative relations, where two plots are put in some correspondence with each other. But associative relations or parallelism doesn’t have to involve allegory. Tolstoy often relates plots within his novels by means of parallels or anti-parallels, as in Anna Karenina, where Anna’s dysfunctional marriage to Karenin and her affair with Vronsky are both contrasted with Kitty and Levin’s happy marriage. Shakespeare liked to structure his comedies such as A Midsummer Nights Dream or Much Ado About Nothing with parallel couples whose differences create many of the desired effects and moments of recognition. King Lear is Belknap’s chief example of Shakespeare’s effective use of parallels to advance his themes. The virtuous and deceitful daughters of Lear are set off against the good and bad sons of Gloucester. Their paths intersect at various points in the drama, but the careful contrast of incident shows us much of what we need to know about each one’s character.  In this way, Shakespeare breaks away from Aristotle’s “unity of action” and strict determinacy of causation, freeing up his plot to interrupt, embed, and comment on itself.

I will describe one final example of Belknap’s powerful argument that a reader’s experience of a story depends on the author’s inspired control of plot devices. The book is Crime and Punishment and the author, Dostoevsky, is one that Belknap devoted his life to understanding, having written two books on The Brothers Karamazov. Yet with all his knowledge of this author and the society he moved in, he argues for laser focus on the guiding principles of the literary work before him. I love this impassioned statement, which he makes before he dives into his reading of the novel.

A great book is a fearsome thing, and always tempts a reader to talk about something else. I need to know all I can about an author’s health, psyche, readings, interaction with society, and so forth, but my profession demands that I see order in the text, knowing that I may fail, just as doctors seek to prolong lives knowing their patients are mortal….

A literary text can look messy but have an order that is not structural but algorithmic.

One of the algorithms or reproducible rules he finds at work in Dostoevsky is the brilliant incorporation of other genres to suit his novelistic purposes. He is not alone in this, as the European novel developed over time as a response to other fiction and nonfiction genres: epic, picaresque, memoir, biography, collections of letters. The remarkable thing is the skill with which Dostoevsky uses the plotting technique of picaresque–one thing after another in a string of adventures–to draw the reader into Raskolnikov’s world and his mind.

The grinding paradox of “Crime and Punishment”–that we care about the well-being of a calculating, self-absorbed hatchet-murderer–rests in part on the picaresque way the narrative obsessively focuses our attention on him as he rushes from crisis to crisis.

With this insight, Belknap painstakingly shows the steps that Dostoevsky takes to engage the reader in the action of the story. This is the sort of thing that any competent storyteller does, right? But a brilliant storyteller like Dostoevsky takes the reader where he might least like to go.

As Raskolnikov stands in the room with the two bleeding corpses, holding his breath as he listens at the door, inches from his potential discoverers, who may leave or summon the police, we readers hold our breath, exert our will upon him not to give up and confess, and then suddenly realize that we are accessories after the fact,…

This complicity in the crime alternates with the reader’s horror and revulsion at it…. Dostoevsky’s siuzhet manipulates his readers into the fabula of the novel by almost never letting them outside the mind of Raskolnikov. We have mentioned that this intensity of narrative concentration on a single figure implicates the readers in his predicament much as readers willed the escape of picaresque scamps in earlier novels.

Belknap says this first part of the book is like a self-contained novella called “Crime” with a very long sequel called “Punishment.” But our involvement in this long sequel–the protracted journey of guilt and confession–very much depends on the narrative strength of the opening novella. He observes that Dostoevsky’s narration technique becomes embedded, almost disappears, as part of the plot, whereas other strands of the European novel, notably the English novel, made narration function more like a character, with varying degrees of contact with the reader (Austen’s narrator was often indirect in commenting, Thackeray’s could speak directly to the reader, and Dickens used both techniques).

To conclude, I want to mention one aspect of plot that is very relevant to reviewers and book bloggers, to anyone who writes about fiction: the need to write plot summaries. Belknap says that some theorists identify summaries with the plot itself–the synopsis is the plot, and only the full story is therefore the story. However, he notes that writing plot summaries is an art demanding many complex decisions, much like translation; in fact, he deems it another form of translation, and he calls for more research into plot summaries themselves.  His book will surely be a classic for critics and writers to mull over, argue about, and study for clues to the mysteries of plotting a story. I have had so much to say about it, because it packs so many insights into a small, beautifully written text, which I highly recommend! It should be of great interest to anyone who loves literature and is looking for those “a-ha” moments when the art of writing comes into clearer focus.

If you are a book blogger, do you like writing plot summaries?  Do you leave that aspect to the synopsis?

What aspects of plot do you think are crucial to put into a summary?  What do you choose to leave out, and how do you decide?

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For those interested in more history of the distinction in literary theory between fabula and siuzhet, the Wikipedia article (“Fabula and syuzhet”) is very helpful and a good place to start. Vladimir Propp’s book, Morphology of the Folktale is a fascinating document, cataloguing a large array of story structures by giving a grammar of stories, the types of characters that tend to recur, and the “functions” used to create the action of the story. In 1979, I published (with two colleagues) a psychology experiment testing out readers’ subjective arrangement of incidents in simple fairy tales with the structures predicted by some story grammars (Pollard-Gott, L.; McCloskey, M.; and Todres, A. K. Subjective Story Structure, Discourse Processes, 2(4): 251-281, 1979). I found that readers grouped events generally in line with popular story grammars but there were some interesting differences.

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Plots by Robert L Belknap cover

Book Description (From the Publisher)

Robert L. Belknap’s theory of plot illustrates the active and passive roles literature plays in creating its own dynamic reading experience. Literary narrative enchants us through its development of plot, but plot tells its own story about the making of narrative, revealing through its structures, preoccupations, and strategies of representation critical details about how and when a work came into being.

Through a rich reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Belknap explores the spatial, chronological, and causal aspects of plot, its brilliant manipulation of reader frustration and involvement, and its critical cohesion of characters. He considers Shakespeare’s transformation of dramatic plot through parallelism, conflict, resolution, and recognition. He then follows with Dostoevsky’s development of the rhetorical and moral devices of nineteenth-century Russian fiction, along with its epistolary and detective genres, to embed the reader in the murder Raskolnikov commits. Dostoevsky’s reinvention of the psychological plot was profound, and Belknap effectively challenges the idea that the author abused causality to achieve his ideological conclusion. In a final chapter, Belknap argues that plots teach us novelistic rather than poetic justice. Operating according to their own logic, plots provide us with a compelling way to see and order our world.

About the Author

Robert L. Belknap (1929–2014) was professor of Slavic languages and a former dean of Columbia University. He authored two major studies of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov: The Structure of “The Brothers Karamazov” (1989) and Genesis of “The Brothers Karamazov”: The Aesthetics, Ideology, and Psychology of Making a Text (1990).


*Note*: I thank Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

 

Family Sagas in July: The Makioka Sisters, The Lowland, or My Brilliant Friend #TTWIB

27 Jun

TTWIB reading challenge latest image

During the month of July, we invite you to pick one of three family sagas, which will take you to Japan, India, or Italy, for an absorbing, multi-generational story. In our poll taken at the Travel the World in Books Goodreads group, these three novels were about equally popular:

The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker) tells the story of four aristocratic sisters in pre-World War II Osaka, Japan. Two are married, one is still single because her family has rejected several proposals, and one is carrying on a relationship in secret. The book has a good key to its characters at the beginning. I am already excited to follow these sisters and their families in this watershed period for Japanese culture; it’s not only a divide between traditional and modern ways of doing things, but also a time on the brink of the devastating Second World War. This book is described as perhaps the greatest Japanese novel of the 20th century, and it’s the masterpiece of one of Japan’s most important modern writers–a literary journey well worth making.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is a story about two brothers who grow up in Calcutta, India. They are very close but differ widely in temperament and goals. Udayan will plunge into a dangerous political movement, while Subhash chooses academia and a life of scientific research in America. But Subhash will return to India when his family is rocked by crisis and a terrible loss. Lahiri can be depended upon to create a moving and psychologically penetrating account of this family, and the larger forces of society (both Indian and American) at work in their lives.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein), and her subsequent ‘Neapolitan novels’ in this series, are already such a sensation that I hardly need describe them. Two girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s and 1960s forge an unforgettable friendship (which will truly suffer some ups and downs as the series develops).  I have read some of Book 2, The Story of a New Name, but I need to go back and see how it all began!

Any of these three novels would be excellent company this summer, and I hope you will join us as we read along and share our impressions of these family sagas set in three different countries. I will have two twitter chats, on Wednesday, July 13, 9:00 pm EDT and on Sunday, July 31, 3:00 pm EDT — both using hashtag #TTWIB. You can tweet about what you are reading any time! I will also post Discussion questions at our Goodreads group.  It should be interesting to talk about some of the characteristics of family sagas in general and compare notes on the particular novels we are reading.

Do you like family sagas (about one family, or two contrasting families) as a genre? If so, what have been some of your favorites? Which of the three books above would you most like to read?

Review: “Chasing Chaos” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

6 Jun

Chasing Chaos cover

My Review

I thank Katie Rose Guest Pryal and Velvet Morning Press for the opportunity to review Chasing Chaos.  I also thank Katie for kindly giving me e-copies of the earlier books in this series–Entanglement (2015) and its prequel, Love and Entropy (2015)–so that I could read Chasing Chaos with the full impact of her characters’ histories.

And what a fascinating history it is!  This series tells the story of an epic friendship, how it began, how it was tested, and how it affected the other relationships in the lives of two distinctive young women, Daphne Saito and Greta Donovan.

Entanglement coverIn Entanglement, we learn that their friendship is fed by shared losses, resulting from their acutely painful family backgrounds. We get a remarkably complete portrait of Daphne and Greta, and why they need each other so much, constructing their own sisterhood family to fill the empty places where family love, trust, and stability should have resided in their hearts. Daphne suffered sexual abuse instigated by her father, followed by emotional rejection and denial from her mother and sisters. Greta learned to be tough to cope with her mother’s long battle with leukemia and her father’s infidelity and emotional abandonment.

But those revelations will come later, after these two girls find each other, at poolside on the North Carolina campus where they both attend college.  As Pryal presents it, the start of their friendship is a kind of falling in love, not sexual, but full of attraction, interest, and curiosity about the other.

Daphne is a petite, fashionably dressed girl of Japanese heritage, aware of her exquisite beauty. Greta is tall and athletic, physically graceful but awkwardly self-conscious about her size. Daphne notices the adept “swimming girl” and begins to count the laps she is making across the length of the pool. Her boyfriend Sutton gives us his impression of the girl who has captured Daphne’s attention so completely, “ugly, with a big nose and frizzy hair and a blockish body,” but under Daphne’s discerning gaze, she, and we as readers, see her striking presence and unusual beauty:

But Sutton would be wrong. The girl was not ugly. She was immensely tall, but she was long and lean, with basically zero body fat and well-shaped legs. Her eyes were a remarkable shade of green, and her hair, if conditioned properly, would form delightful curls.

The swimmer finishes her laps and makes her way toward the exit of the pool area, but Daphne corners her at the gate, determined to know this intriguing girl she has seen from a distance on campus. Daphne introduces herself, and Greta, without much choice in the matter, reciprocates, and stops to appraise this enthusiastic new acquaintance.  We see her through Greta’s eyes.

Daphne was wearing a tiny black bikini and enormous sunglasses that covered half her face. Her straight black hair was artfully cut to hang in shaggy pieces to her shoulders. She smiled broadly, her full lips stretching to reveal large, perfect teeth. She was stunning. Daphne’s beauty made Greta  want to flee even more.

But she did not flee. Daphne’s magnetism drew her back to sit by the pool and begin a real conversation. Greta, a physics major who typically spoke unadorned truths, must have wondered what could be brewing in the mind of this fashionable girl who was so anxious to chat. She was surprised by Daphne’s smart responses to simple questions, her original trains of thought:

‘I like swimming in the ocean too,’ Daphne said. ‘You’d think it might get old after living there your whole life, but it doesn’t. Every time, it’s a little bit scary because it’s so big . For me, I think it’s scary because the water connects to everything. Every part of the world is touching the ocean.’ She laughed. ‘You could say that the scope of it is overwhelming. But at the same time, that overwhelmingness is exactly what comforts me.’

Like Daphne, Pryal brings some surprising concepts right into the heart of her story, to reveal crucial aspects of her characters’ emotional experience. First, there is entropy, the physical law that disorder tends to increase in the universe; in life, it suggests those times when everything seems to reel out of control and go seriously awry! Love and Entropy coverHer prequel novella Love and Entropy flashes back to a particularly disturbing incident that happened that first summer when Greta and Daphne knew each other and became inseparable. Second, there is chaos, described by the famous example of the butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, setting up a minute breeze that gathers force and eventually triggers a hurricane thousands of miles away. In these novels, chaos intrudes when small decisions and actions lead to major consequences down the road, big effects that seemingly could have been avoided. In Chasing Chaos, Daphne will be especially haunted by her own actions and her belief that she is responsible for a chain reaction of disaster and tragedy.

The story’s Prologue finds her in a hospital, on the surgical floor, waiting for news.

It could take hours before she knew whether she’d caused the death of someone close to her.

Whether tonight she’d set in motion the dangerous actions that had put two people in the hospital and one person in an operating room fighting for life.

She couldn’t stand herself. Self-blame nearly suffocated her.

The rest of the novel flashes back to all that led up to this critical moment.

Greta and Daphne are still living in Los Angeles, where they moved after college, both of them wanting to put lots of geography between them and their families. They had each other, and with their talents and a bit of luck, both found opportunities in L. A. that suited them. Daphne worked in a production company, but was still an aspiring screenwriter, working hard on her scripts every evening. Greta put her knowledge of physics and electronics to use as a lighting designer. No one was more surprised than Greta that this job led to romance  with her boss, Timmy.  When Greta fell in love, very cautiously at first, the delicate balance of the friends’ mutual support was upset, and Daphne suffered the worst of it.  Daphne felt seriously displaced, triggering her deepest wounds, and Greta felt torn between two people who each wanted to rank first in her life. Tempers flared, and one rash action led to another, until a crisis came, endangering Greta’s life. That’s where Entanglement left their story.

In Chasing Chaos, it is five years later, and life is advancing on all fronts. Daphne is now a successful screenwriter, and living more comfortably, it seems, setting her own schedule and choosing  her freelance work. She has a boyfriend Dan, with whom she often collaborates, but she is restless and serially unfaithful during their relationship. She decides to break it off with him rather abruptly, and she doubts that she is meant to find real love, or that she even deserves to. Meanwhile, Greta and Timmy have been running their thriving lighting production business and growing closer and stronger in their love. Greta recovered from her brush with death at the home of a friend she met through Daphne, a semi-retired film star of some magnitude, named Sandy. Sandy’s home is a gathering place for his circle of carefully chosen and dependable friends–Greta, Timmy, and Daphne chief among them. So it is natural that, when Timmy proposes marriage (for the umpteenth time?) and Greta startles him by accepting, their wedding should take place at Sandy’s house and Daphne should be in charge of planning it. But she only has five days to do it. Sandy’s handyman, Marlon, who is much more like an adopted son to him, helps Daphne pull off a miracle of last-minute wedding creation.  Daphne and Marlon find themselves drawn to each other on all levels–irresistibly fascinated and also caring deeply for each other–and Daphne dares to hope that love and happiness might be available to her too, in spite of everything. But then chaos starts happening all over again… It will take all the resources of friendship to convince her that she is not at the vortex of every storm. But will it be too late?

I read all three installments in the Entanglement Series in rapid succession, and when I was away from them, I found myself actually worrying about its two heroines, Daphne and Greta. What would happen to them? Would they be okay? Katie Rose Guest Pryal has worked that subtle magic by which we begin to care very much for the fictional lives unfolding word by word.

If you read Pryal’s very impressive bio, you can see that she has tremendous experience teaching writing, but here in her first full-length series of novels, she really delivers with beautiful pacing and structure, and smart, memorable dialogue. I can highly recommend all these books, in which the lives of these characters are seasoned by more than enough dramatic action. Chasing Chaos is Daphne’s story; she faces the longest road back from a chaotic childhood, and must work hardest to find herself. To understand Greta more fully, I also warmly recommend Entanglement, where Daphne and Greta find each other.

Synopsis

CHASING CHAOS takes place 5 years after the end of ENTANGLEMENT.

Daphne Saito, a beautiful and talented Hollywood screenwriter, might look like she has the perfect life, but on the inside she’s lost. She’s wandered from one meaningless relationship to the next—and now, just as she breaks up with her longtime boyfriend, Dan—she finds herself facing someone new, someone she could fall in love with. But Daphne, still traumatized by an accident involving her best friend, Greta, five years earlier, is afraid to love. Harm has always come to those close to her.

Over five life-changing days, Daphne lets her guard down and steps toward this new love. But trouble is never far behind. Dan, angry at Daphne’s departure, has targeted an innocent young woman, someone close to Daphne’s new love, as part of a plan for revenge. And an enigmatic woman from Daphne’s past returns with revenge plans of her own. Danger is on the horizon for all of Daphne’s friends—and for her.

About the Author

(Adapted from her page at Tall Poppy Writers)

Katie Rose Guest Pryal author photoKatie Rose Guest Pryal enjoys her three professions—novelist, freelance journalist, and lawyer—for one reason: her love of the written word. Fiction or nonfiction, Katie thrives on putting thoughts to paper and sharing them with the world. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the energy of the campus and cafes inspires her writing. She is the author of the Entanglement Series: ENTANGLEMENT  (2015), LOVE AND ENTROPY (2015), and CHASING CHAOS (2016), all published by Velvet Morning Press. She is also a contributor to the anthology CHRISTMAS, ACTUALLY (VMP 2015).

You can grab a free copy of Katie’s novelette, NICE WHEELS, and her writing guide, WRITING ISN’T SEXY, by subscribing to her newsletter.

Katie contributes regularly to QUARTZ, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, THE TOAST, DAME MAGAZINE and other national venues, including THE HUFFINGTON POST, where she writes a monthly column on writing. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship.

Katie has published many books on writing, the most recent with Oxford University Press. A professor of writing for more than a decade, she now works as a writing coach and developmental editor and teaches creative writing at Duke University when she’s not writing her next book.


*Note*: I received an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

Review: “I Promise You This” by Patricia Sands #FranceBT

18 May

I Promise You This Banner

My Review

I have now read all three books in Patricia Sands’ Love in Provence series, so I will comment on the third book, I Promise You This, as the culmination of this series.

The first book, The Promise of Provence, introduces Katherine Price, who is expecting to celebrate her 22nd anniversary, but instead finds that her husband James has left her for another woman he met in their cycling club. This devastating news begins a process of grief and recovery for Katherine who wonders how she missed this crevasse opening up in her life just below the surface of apparent happiness. In this book, and those that follow, Katherine will begin to examine her life and herself and ask what the ingredients of a deeper, more dependable happiness might be.

One of the first things she rediscovers is friendship, reconnecting with her childhood friend Molly who still lives nearby in their city of Toronto, Canada. Another is family; Katherine’s mother is in declining health and needs her daughter’s help, just as Katherine needs her mother’s support as a bulwark against despair and fear. After her mother dies, Katherine must hold on to the lessons of strength her mother communicated.  Molly then encourages her to strike out in a new direction and take a chance on a two-week home exchange in the south of France, in the village of Sainte-Mathilde. Katherine had been to France in her youth, and even fallen in love there, so this opportunity seemed to pick up another piece of her life that she had laid aside during her marriage.

Provence opens up her epicurean side with sightseeing, photography, food and wine; new friendships form, including the unexpected possibility of dating again. After some false starts, Katherine begins to build a new relationship with Philippe, a fromager, whose home base and cheese market is in Antibes on the Côte d’Azur.  As Book 1 closes, Katherine decides to arrange a longer stay in Antibes.

 

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Antibes sea coast. Photo: Gilbert Bochenek. Wikimedia.

 

Books 2 and 3 build on the foundation laid out skillfully so far. In Book 2, Promises to Keep, Katherine and Philippe’s romance begins to encounter some real-life challenges, as secrets from Philippe’s past begin to intrude on the fantasy of the present moment. I found it interesting that Katherine was surprised by her feelings at many turns. She had reached her late fifties without much self-awareness, perhaps suppressed by her life with her dominant ex-husband.  Although Philippe was very different from James, she had to face her choice of another man who was capable of withholding important truths about himself. The revelation of his secret and how they cope with it together makes Promises to Keep a very meaty installment in this trilogy.

In the final book, I Promise You This, Katherine and Philippe’s relationship is tested by separation. Katherine’s friend Molly has been seriously injured in an auto accident and Katherine is the closest thing she has to family. Katherine flies back to Toronto, taking up a place at Molly’s bedside and taking on the responsibility for her health decisions, since Molly was placed in a medically induced coma.

Back in Toronto, Katherine experiences a more powerful sense of returning home than she had anticipated.  She is surprised by her deep attachment to the city and to her way of life there. As attractive as life in France had become for her, she feels a tug-of-war beginning in her heart. Can she really leave her old life behind so completely, and recreate herself in a new country, with a new career, and committed to a new man?  While she grapples once more with the pieces of her identity, she must help her friend Molly awaken to life again. And what about Philippe?  Will he wait passively for Katherine to make her decision, or will he take action to keep the woman he loves from slipping away?

Although the series is called Love in Provence, I think the recurring word promises in each book’s title offers the key to appreciating this carefully crafted series. At first, a broken promise–James’s infidelity and sudden departure–propels Katherine in a completely new direction, across the ocean in fact! Energized by the beauty and abundance of Provence, she experiences the promise (in the sense of latent possibility) of embracing a new, independent life. In the second book, Katherine pledges to stay with Philippe even when the secrets from his past threaten their peace and even their safety.  Finally, I Promise You This thrives on the themes of friendship, loyalty, and finding one’s true home. Katherine promises Philippe to return to France but will she be able to fulfill this promise?  Will she ever be able to make a vow to someone again?  First, she must honor the promise implicit in her friendship with Molly, coming to her aid in crisis and seeing it through.  And she has one last meeting with her ex-husband; sadly, she was not ready to forgive him, but I can only wonder if that might change in the future (the author intimates that she might continue these characters’ lives in a future series).

Katherine begins to understand another kind of promise she has made, since she was thrust into life on her own: To live fully and be true to herself. She will need to work out the implications of this promise to herself, before she can move forward. This book raises the question, are we ever truly “on our own” in this life? Do we want to be? Or do we want to choose the promises we make to care for others, the promises to keep for a lifetime. I Promise You This takes a look at such questions from several angles.  Its characters are very human in their strengths and weaknesses, in their virtues and temptations, and consequently felt real to me.

Like the other books in this series, readers hungry for glimpses of daily life in Provence will find much to savor in I Promise You This: meals described in loving detail, the produce of farm and field, the natural beauty of the region, and the excitement of towns and cities. This book can be read on its own, as the author unobtrusively weaves the necessary information from the earlier books into her story. But reading the earlier books does repay the effort to follow the whole arc of this involving series.

 

Patricia Sands

on Tour

May 17-26

with

I Promise You This

I Promise You This

(women’s fiction)

Release date: May 17, 2016
at Lake Union Publishing

ISBN: 978-1503935723
365 pages

Author’s page | Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

Suddenly single after twenty-two years of marriage, the calm of Katherine Price’s midlife has turned upside down. Seeking to find her true self, she took a chance on starting over. A year later, she is certain of this: she’s in love with Philippe and adores his idyllic French homeland, where he wants her to live with him.

But all that feels like a fantasy far removed from Toronto, where she’s helping her friend Molly, hospitalized after a life-threatening accident. Staying in her childhood home full of memories, Katherine wonders: Is she really ready to leave everything behind for an unknown life abroad? And if all her happiness lies with Philippe, will it last? Can she trust in love again?

Searching her heart, Katherine finds the pull of the familiar is stronger than she thought. An unexpected meeting with her ex, the first time since his cruel departure, and a stunning declaration of love from an old flame spur her introspection.

With sunlit backdrops and plot twists as breathtaking as the beaches of Côte d’Azur, author Patricia Sands brings her trilogy about second chances to a provocative and satisfying close that proves that a new life just might be possible—if you’re willing to let your heart lead you home.

BOOK TRAILER

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I Promise You This Patricia Sands

A confessed travel-addict, best-selling author
Patricia Sands lives in Toronto, Canada, when she isn’t somewhere else, and calls the south of France her second home. I Promise You This, is Book 3 in her award-winning Love in Provence series.
Find Patricia on Facebookon Twitteron Instagramat her Amazon Author Pageor at her website.

Subscribe to her mailing list and get information about new releases.

Buy the book : Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.ca | Amazon.fr | available at Barnes & Noble on May 17

******

You can enter the global giveaway here
or on any other book blogs participating in this tour.
Be sure to follow each participant on Twitter/Facebook,
they are listed in the entry form below
.

Enter here

Visit each blogger on the tour:
tweeting about the giveaway everyday
of the Tour will give you 5 extra entries each time!
[just follow the directions on the entry-form]

Global giveaway open internationally:
10 participants will each win a copy of this book, print or digital

******

CLICK ON THE BANNER
TO READ REVIEWS AND EXCERPTS

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*Note*: I received an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

#BookBuddyAthon this week! What I’m Reading (#TBR Stack)

7 May

I’m so happy to be joining fellow blogger and friend, Sharon, of Faith Hope & Cherrytea (@_eHope) for a #BookBuddyAthon this week (May 7-13).  We are long-distance buddies in miles (or kilometers–she’s Canadian) but close in kindred spirits and many shared interests.  I can always count on FHC for lovely new recommendations of nourishing fiction, faith & inspiration, as well as soul stirring music–all presented with her specially chosen and delightful images. Visit her page for all the particulars on the #BookBuddyAthon, which is being hosted by @robertson_elena and @ColdTeaCrumbs (their Twitter handles) at a special YouTube channel, since they are both BookTubers too! Elena has posted a Giveaway, open internationally, of a gift certificate for the Book Depository. (You can also find the Giveaway at ColdTeaAndCrumbs’ video). Now on to my #TBRs!

As our Buddy Read, FHC and I are reading Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery. (I have to write out the L. M., being another Lucy myself!) The story of Anne and her true love Gilbert Blythe starting off married life in their first home together still beckons readers after nearly 100 years (published in 1919). It still uplifts the heart, even when their move away from Avonlea presents new challenges for Anne and Gilbert.

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The #BookBuddyAthon also asks us to choose a book whose cover displays our buddy’s favorite color (for FHCthat would be purple or periwinkle), and one whose title includes one of her initials. I settled on a book she suggested (a bonus buddy read!), Rules for a Successful Book Club by Victoria Connelly, that fulfills both of these.  From the title, I expected a nonfiction guide to starting your own book club! My literal thinking…  In any case, it looks like a very engaging story about people who happen to be in a book club together. Isn’t this a stylish cover?

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During the week, I hope to polish off a free-choice read called I Promise You This by Patricia Sands. It is the third and final book of her Love in Provence series, and I will be reviewing it later this month for France Book Tours.  I discovered that FHC has also read this one, so clearly  we have caught the true #BookBuddyAthon spirit!  See the rest of her choices, including Stardust by Carla Stewart, whose cover features my favorite color, yellow!

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To see what others are reading, visit the YouTube channel or follow along with hashtag #BookBuddyAthon on Twitter or Instagram. I’m going to start off my reading with Anne’s House of Dreams!

#ReadNobels and #TTWIB join forces in April!: Week 2

17 Apr

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Under the spirited #ReadNobels leadership of Aloi of Guiltless Reading, and in conjunction with Travel the World in Books (#TTWIB;  co-hosted by Aloi, Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories, Becca of I’m Lost in Books, Savvy Working Gal, and me), the April combined challenge is rolling along–it’s the end of Week 2! Guiltless Reader has provided us with questions each week to get the discussion going and prompt our own thinking about the great wealth of Nobel-recognized literature, which is out there, just waiting to be sampled.

This week the focus is on making a list of authors and their works we have read, from among those on the list of Nobel prizes awarded in Literature. This was an illuminating exercise, because it became apparent which authors had become dear favorites and which were merely respected acquaintances. When I was doing research (over quite a few years) for my book The Fictional 100, I tried to read a wide range of notable authors around the world, so I encountered many of these distinguished authors (though surely not everyone I might have read!). In Week 3, I will offer a list, as Guiltless Reader suggests, of Nobel-prize-winning authors and books on my wish list for future reading!

Week 2 question: Which Literature Nobelists have you read (at least something of theirs)?

Rudyard Kipling (1907)

Just So Stories

Rabindranath Tagore (1913):

Gitanjali (poetry)

William Butler Yeats (1923):

“The Wild Swans of Coole,” other poems

Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish

George Bernard Shaw (1925):

Man and Superman

Sigrid Undset (1928):

Kristin Lavransdatter

Gunnar’s Daughter

Thomas Mann (1929):

Buddenbrooks

Death in Venice

Joseph and His Brothers (Parts I and II)

Sinclair Lewis (1930):

Main Street

Babbitt

Dodsworth

John Galsworthy (1932):

The Forsyte Saga

Luigi Pirandello (1934):

“Six  Characters in Search of an Author”

Eugene O’Neill (1936):

Mourning Becomes Electra

Hermann Hesse (1946):

Siddhartha

The Glass Bead Game

T. S. Eliot (1948):

The Waste Land

“Four Quartets”

William Faulkner (1949):

The Sound and the Fury

Absalom, Absalom!

Ernest Hemingway (1954):

The Old Man and the Sea

Halldór Laxness (1955):

The Great Weaver from Kashmir (excellent, his first important novel)

Albert Camus (1957):

The Stranger

Boris Pasternak (1958):

Doctor Zhivago

John Steinbeck (1962):

Of Mice and Men

The Grapes of Wrath

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1970):

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Eugenio Montale (1975)

Selected Poems (still working on these!)

Gabriel García Márquez (1982):

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Love in the Time of Cholera

Wole Soyinka (1986):

“Madmen and Specialists”

“The Trials of Brother Jero”

“A Dance of the Forests”

Nadine Gordimer (1991)

Burger’s Daughter

Derek Walcott (1992):

Omeros

Toni Morrison (1993):

Beloved

Song of Solomon

Jazz

The Bluest Eye

José Saramago (1998):

Journey Through Portugal

V. S. Naipaul (2001):

A Bend in the River

A House for Mr. Biswas

India: A Million Mutinies Now

Orhan Pamuk (2006):

The Museum of Innocence

Other Colours (Essays)

Istanbul

Doris Lessing (2007):

The Golden Notebook

Canopus in Argos: Archives (sci-fi!)

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

Memoirs of a Survivor

Mario Vargas Llosa (2010):

The Perpetual Orgy (literary criticism, Madame Bovary)

The Temptation of the Impossible (literary criticism, Les Misérables)

*****

Looking over these works, they were all distinctly memorable reading experiences, and associated with obsessive bursts of enthusiasm. I remember when I was reading Doris Lessing with a passion, then I moved on to other authors. I would like to revisit her (Week 3!)  I love Mario Vargas Llosa’s literary criticism and found it influential in my own thinking. I used a quote from The Perpetual Orgy to open the Introduction to my own book. But his fiction has not grabbed me so far. Beloved still stands out to me, as unique and beautiful and heart-wrenching. I recalled being so thrilled when Toni Morrison won the prize! Sigrid Undset’s writing has long been deeply meaningful to me, and I still wonder why I didn’t include Kristin Lavransdatter in my top 100 characters. I want to recommend this book, a medieval saga written by a modern author, one which reads like a glorious triple-decker novel of family, love, loss, and redemption, a masterpiece in the greatest traditions of storytelling.

*****

TTWIB reading challenge latest image

 

 

Review: “Letters for Scarlet” by Julie C. Gardner

2 Apr

Letters for Scarlet cover

I thank Julie C. Gardner and Velvet Morning Press for the opportunity to review this fine debut novel.

My Review

Epistolary novels–novels in which the narrative is entrusted to letters between characters–have long fascinated me. Ever since I read Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (or parts of it–it is very long), I have thought of this 18th-century masterpiece as the quintessential example of the form.  Despite its length, it is exquisitely suspenseful because the author has such ingenious control over disclosure of the facts and the secrets, little by little.  This feature should make the form attractive to authors of any era, but how does one go about writing an epistolary novel today? How does one craft a story through letters that feels both contemporary and natural?

In her new novel, Letters for Scarlet, Julie C. Gardner has figured out how do this beautifully by adopting a hybrid technique. The story unfolds through narrative and dialogue that we expect to find in a novel, but the main revelations that bind the story together and illuminate its characters’ motives occur in the abundant letters inserted throughout. Gardner handles both ways of telling her story with sureness of purpose and a very genuine voice. Or, should I say, “voices,” because the letters require her to speak in many voices.  But nearly all the letters are intended for the same recipient, Scarlet Hinden, one of the novel’s two pivotal characters. Most of the letters are from her friend Corie Harper.

Both Corie and Scarlet are 28. Corie is an English teacher and aspiring writer, married to Tuck Slater. They would like to have children but so far have been frustrated by trying, something that deeply wounds Corie who already has some nagging doubts about her marriage. Scarlet is a busy attorney and in a relationship with Gavin; she is expecting a baby but struggling with paralyzing fears about being a mother; she is skeptical of ever finding happiness and holding on to it.  What is the connection between these two couples, and how is it influencing their pain in the present moment?

Corie and Scarlet were inseparable friends in high school, and along with Tuck, they were a solid trio until something happened that destroyed the women’s friendship and upended all their lives. We know that the trio turned into a triangle when Corie and Tuck became a couple, but clearly much more must have transpired to cause the kind of unbridgeable rift they are suffering.  It doesn’t seem like anything will change their situation, until Corie receives a letter from the past: the letter she wrote 10 years ago to her future self. It was an assignment in her senior English class (and a very clever mechanism to introduce the first letters into the story). Since she wrote it before her friendship with Scarlet fell apart, Corie feels the loss even more acutely, the aching absence of something that was once unquestionable.  Corie begins to write a series of letters to Scarlet, ones she thinks she’ll never dare send, but which allow her to open her heart to the friend she still needs so desperately. Here are a few bits of her first letter:

Did you get your ten-year letter  from Mr. Roosevelt? Until Tuck handed me that envelope, I had completely forgotten about the assignment. But since I read those words from the past, I’ve been prompted by a desire (more like a need) to say a few things to you. Some old. Some new. All of them true. For what it’s worth. …

I’m sorry we didn’t tell you about us sooner. I suppose the secrets we keep can be as dangerous as the ones we share. Maybe more so.

Sometimes I wonder how different our lives would be if the three of us had loved each other less….

In a surprising move, Scarlet’s mother visits Corie and entrusts her with Scarlet’s 10-year letter.  Corie wants to deliver this powderkeg letter but she hesitates, since Scarlet has refused all contact since high school.

I read the last two thirds of this novel in one long sitting–it was that compelling and I didn’t want to stop until I discovered what tragedy drove these friends apart and how–or whether–they could move on from it. This fine debut novel convincingly explores the ties of love and friendship at the breaking point.

Synopsis

Pain can take a lifetime to heal, but hope lasts even longer…

Corie Harper is twenty-eight years old when she is first visited by a ghost—in the form of a graduation letter she forgot she wrote. Although she spent a decade burying that desperate girl and her regrets, each page resurrects the past, dragging Corie back to a time when all she craved was Scarlet Hinden’s friendship and Tuck Slater’s heart. But she couldn’t keep them both and keep her word.

Scarlet is haunted in her own way, by memories of Corie and of a night that left her wishing she were dead. But Scarlet is not only alive, she’s carrying new life: a baby she never wanted and is terrified to have. Convinced she would be a disastrous mother, she questions whether or not she deserves the love of any man. Especially the father of her child.

Letters for Scarlet traces one friendship from deep roots to branches torn by broken promises and loss.

Release date: April 4, 2016

Publisher: Velvet Morning Press

Buy the book: Amazon

About Julie C. Gardner

Julie C Gardner, author photoI’m a former English teacher and lapsed marathon runner who traded in the classroom for a writing nook. I am the co-author of You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth, and a contributor to the upcoming anthology So Glad They Told Me; my essays have appeared in BlogHerVoices of the Year: 2012 and Precipice Literary Anthology. I live in Southern California with my husband, two children, and three dogs.

Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Website | Blog

 

 

*Note*: I received an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

A Mother’s Pilgrimage: “A Star for Mrs. Blake” by April Smith (France Book Tours #franceBT)

10 May

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A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith. Knopf, 2014.

A Star for Mrs. Blake begins well, continues well in the middle, and finishes well–this is deft storytelling that April Smith has honed in her Ana Grey mystery thriller series and in her writing for television. Any reader can be grateful to be in such confident authorial company. Yet, clearly, this book goes beyond its sureness of craft: it’s the product of Smith’s passion for her subject over many years of research and thought about the real people making the Gold Star Mothers pilgrimages to the American cemeteries in France in the early 1930s. The characters she has created are fictional, but fashioned from genuine historical detail, which is meaningfully applied throughout.  Because this novel is shaped by the course of a very special pilgrimage, it makes sense to talk about it in terms of the sequence of stages through which anyone on pilgrimage will likely pass. I’m adopting the stages mapped out by Phil Cousineau in his book The Art of Pilgrimage, which in turn draws on the “hero’s journey” made famous in the writings of Joseph Campbell.

First, there is the Longing; for mothers whose sons had died in the First World War and were buried overseas, the longing was persistent and palpable. The first such mother we meet in the novel is Cora Blake, a librarian and single mother in Deer Isle, Maine, raising her three nieces and mourning the loss of her son Sammy who was killed in Verdun in October 1918. The hard decision many families made not to bring their children’s remains home from the battlefield was a lingering wound; the longing to visit these graves was acute, yet such a trip seemed out of reach. The Call came in 1929, when the U.S. Congress passed legislation which enabled mothers to go on pilgrimage, courtesy of the government, to their sons’ graves in Europe. For Cora Blake, her personal call came in February 1931 when she got a letter of invitation from the War Department. (Here is a sample set of documents sent to a Gold Star Mother in 1930, including invitation, letters, and a handbook of general information for her trip.) Cora learned that her fellow pilgrims would be four other mothers–all very different from each other–and together they would make up “Party A”; they began to exchange letters and prepare for the momentous Departure in June. This part of the story reminded me in a way of Enchanted April, from the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, in which a small group of women who were strangers to each other and from diverse circumstances made the decision to take a trip to Italy together.  The Gold Star Mothers in Party A were on a very different sort of journey, yet it shared some of the same elements of adventure and assertion of personal independence.

Just as Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn before setting out on the road, Party A all had to assemble at their hotel in New York City before boarding an ocean liner bound for the port of Le Havre, France. Cora came by train from Bangor, Maine, stopping in Boston to meet another mother in her group, an Irish maid named Katie McConnell. One by one, the pilgrims arrived, were introduced, and joined the preparations for the European voyage. Smith has brought to convincing life five women with very different temperaments and histories; the incidents along their pilgrim way flow very naturally from these women’s lives.

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In venerable medieval fashion, the pilgrims all received special bronze badges to wear during the whole trip. These badges identified them as Gold Star Mothers wherever they went. Smith describes what one woman, a Russian immigrant named Minnie Seibert, felt as she looked around the room where many parties of mothers were seated for a welcome luncheon:

“Every woman at the table–everyone in this enormous room–fat ones, skinny ones, ugly, whatever–wore a Gold Star badge. Abraham [her husband] of course had refused, but Minnie had dutifully worn the torn black ribbon of the mourner for seven days after they got the news that Isaac had been killed–but thirteen years later you didn’t go around wearing a badge. Here, you did. Because, like the rabbi from Bangor had said, the consolation for a mourner is that she shares with others not only this loss but all the misfortunes that come of living a full human life. Here, among those others, Minnie knew she belonged.” (pp. 80-81)

This passage expresses Minnie’s thoughts, but it also captures the anguish and isolation each of the mothers had experienced; losing a child to war still separated them from others despite the intervening years.

Once they arrived in France, the stops along the Pilgrim’s Way for these mothers included several days in Paris, not only as tourists but, it became apparent, as goodwill ambassadors for the American military–not a role they consciously chose or endorsed. The mothers were the focus of much attention, most of it welcome and gracious, but some of it problematic and intrusive. As anticipation was building to get down to the real business of the trip, the women confronted painful questions about the war and the meaning of their sons’ deaths. In terms of the hero’s journey, they found themselves in the Labyrinth, which is sometimes called the Descent, the most confusing and potentially hellish time. Pilgrims in the Labyrinthine part of their journey are often assisted by guides: in this case, Lt. Thomas Hammond and nurse Lt. Lily Barnett, who led Party A; and news reporter Griffin Reed, himself an injured WWI veteran, who would have a special influence on Cora’s life. The Arrival at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery where their sons were buried brought this phase to a climax; the series of visits they made there was handled with tremendous sensitivity and insight by Smith. I was frankly in awe of the beautiful construction of the plot at this point–which I WON’T reveal!  It felt like being there with the mothers and then watching the unexpected unfold. Here is the Meuse-Argonne cemetery as it appeared in 1930.

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This picture suggests the immense impact of arriving there, trying to take in the rows upon rows of graves, and then finding the special one with a beloved son’s name on it. Cora had “always imagined Sammy falling alone in suspended space like a stage backdrop, but now she saw a marble forest of young men who were dead, and knew that Sammy was, had been, and always would be in their company.”

The last stage of the hero’s journey–and these pilgrim mothers do emerge as heroes–is Bringing Back the Boon, receiving the gift or gifts from the experience. These can be tangible (crucial objects, talismans, or “souvenirs”) or intangible gifts (knowledge, awakening, and healing)–usually both. Again, this story stars in its unsentimental and emotionally powerful treatment of the resolution for each character. The important thing about going on pilgrimage is that whatever you could imagine ahead of time, you can never really know what it will mean to you until you go there yourself. The same is true of A Star for Mrs. Blake: only by traveling its road and reading to the end can you bring back the boon of this beautiful book.

****************************************************

I am working with author April Smith on a virtual tour for her historical novel: A Star For Mrs. Blake.  Please pay a visit to other stops on the tour at http://francebooktours.com/2014/03/19/april-smith-on-tour-a-star-for-mrs-blake/.

SYNOPSIS

In 1929, The U.S. Congress passed legislation that would provide funding for the mothers of fallen WWI soldiers to visit the graves of their sons in France. Over the course of three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made this trip.  Smith imagines the story of five of these women, strangers who could not be more different from each other. One of them is Cora Blake, a librarian and single mother from coastal Maine. Journeying to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the lives of these women are inextricably intertwined as shocking events – death, scandal, and secrets – are unearthed. And Cora’s own life takes an unexpected turn when she meets an American, “tin nose,” journalist, whose war wounds confine him to a metal mask.  [provided by the author]

***

Release date: January 14, 2014
at Knopf

ISBN-13: 978-0307958846

Hardcover, 352 pages

Purchase the book

***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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April Smith is the author of the FBI Special Agent Ana Grey mystery series, starting with North of Montana.  She is also an Emmy-nominated writer and producer of dramatic series and movies for television.  She lives in Santa Monica with her husband.

Visit her website.
Get in touch with her on Facebook and Twitter

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*Note*: I received an electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

Related post:

In and “Out of Oz”: Dorothy in the “Wicked Years” series

2 Jun

Out of Oz: The Final Volume in the Wicked Years by Gregory Maguire, illus. by Douglas Smith. HarperCollins, 2011.

 

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Dorothy, the beloved character created at the turn of the 20th-century by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, makes pivotal appearances in all four volumes of Gregory Maguire’s inspired refashioning of the Oz world, his “Wicked Years” series.  She does not hold center stage, however, in these books which are a brilliant exercise in empathy for the “Wicked” witch, Elphaba Thropp,  and her descendants.  These books imaginatively alter an already alternate universe, and transform a classic of children’s fantasy literature–also widely appreciated by adults–into a sometimes quite disturbing fantasy fiction for adults. In this alternate history, Dorothy Gale still comes in and out of Oz, on and off the stage, at crucial times and much of the story could never exist without her.

 

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Dorothy’s first visit to Oz comes along rather late in Wicked (2004), which introduced Elphaba’s family, chronicled her childhood, and sent her to college in the Gillikin town of Shiz where she unwillingly shared a room with Galinda (later Glinda) and began to learn about the politics of Oz and where she would stand on them.  For one thing, she championed the cause of the free, sentient, talking Animals (always capitalized, as in Lion). She also came to recognize the tyranny of the Emerald City over the other regions of Oz, which were exploited by its leader the Wizard.  After their college years were over, Elphaba began to act, in secret, as an agent of the resistance to the Wizard.

Dorothy’s arrival from Kansas in the twister-propelled house killed Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, who had become the leader of Munchkinland.  Here the story begins to intersect recognizably with Baum’s tale.  Glinda gave Nessarose’s magical slippers to Dorothy, enraging Elphaba, who retreated again to a castle deep in the western region of Oz, the Vinkus (Winkie country). This place was the family home of Fiyero, Elphaba’s only love and father of her son Liir; Fiyero was killed by the Wizard’s secret police who were after her.  While Dorothy and her motley companions walked the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wizard, Elphaba learned sorcery from the Grimmerie, a magic text which had attracted the Wizard to Oz in the first place.

Dorothy had apparently accepted the Wizard’s charge to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, but in Maguire’s telling, she had no such intention, but journeyed there to apologize to Elphaba for killing her sister with the falling house. Elphaba had become embittered by many griefs and their meeting was confrontational and disastrous. Elphaba’s skirts were set on fire and Dorothy threw the bucket of water to douse the flames and save her, but this melted and killed her instead.

 

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The next book, Son of a Witch (2005), tells Liir’s story (with flashbacks to fill in gaps) from the death of Elphaba to the birth of his own daughter.  Dorothy’s role is brief. She took him with her back to the Emerald City and Liir developed a crush of sorts on the odd Kansas farmgirl. Perhaps her being so out of place in Oz spoke to his own sense of disconnection with all that had happened to him.

 

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A Lion Among Men  recounts Dorothy’s first visit to Oz from the view point of Sir Brrr, otherwise known as the Cowardly Lion. But it spans more of his life than this one episode, and thereby reveals more of his character, in keeping with the series’ ethos of respecting intelligent Animals.  

In the final volume, Out of Oz, Dorothy returns to Oz, this time in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906! (This reference to the quake in popular culture has already found its way into the wikipedia article on the event.) Auntie Em and Uncle Henry have taken Dorothy on a trip west from Kansas, in hopes that the change of scene will help cure Dorothy of her persistent delusional talk about Oz!  Maguire manipulates the chronology deftly: From 1900 (publication of Baum’s first Oz book) to 1906 is 6 years and Dorothy has aged from 10 at her first visit to 16 for her second. Meanwhile, about 16 years have passed in Oz (leading to jokes  where Dorothy agrees that time passes slowly–very slowly–in Kansas).  Most of the book follows the coming-of-age adventures of Rain, Liir’s daughter and thus Elphaba’s granddaughter.  The best Oz stories have a child at their heart and Maguire’s concluding tale is no different in that respect. The Cowardly Lion is likewise one of Rain’s faithful companions and provides a necessary link between the first and last books and between Baum’s storyworld and Maguire’s. 

 

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Some of the key plot elements (the war of rebellion in Oz) and several of the characters (including Tip, Mombey, Ozma, and Jinjuria) in Out of Oz mirror those in Baum’s second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904). Of Baum’s fourteen Oz novels, this is the only one in which Dorothy doesn’t appear. However, Maguire gives her an important role, especially in the centerpiece murder trial, “The Judgment of Dorothy.”  Revealing how that came out would be a *spoiler* indeed!

Instead of revealing more of Maguire’s well-crafted plot, let me consider instead how he portrays Dorothy in this series and how his attitude toward her differs from Baum’s. Given how she is described by the narrator and how other characters speak of her, she is an ungainly child, “not a dainty thing but a good-size farm girl,” (Wicked, p. 3), and an even more awkward teenager.  Rather than fitting Baum illustrator John R. Neill’s winsome vision…

 

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she seems much closer to the stocky miss imagined by her first illustrator, W. W. Denslow.

 

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She is saccharine, “misguidedly cheerful,” given to inappropriate singing, apparently stupid, and clearly a menace! In the prologue to Wicked, Elphaba finds her sympathy patronizing. While naive and guileless, she has a definite presence, especially during her trial:

Aha, thought Brrr, there it is: she has graduated to Miss Dorothy. In her zanily earnest way, she’s commanding the respect of her enemies despite themselves. Brrr would never call it charisma but oh, Dorothy had charm of a sort, for sure. (Out of Oz, p. 294)

Her best qualities came out in her desire to make amends and her insistence on helping Rain. But in the end, for Maguire, Dorothy’s life, despite its adventures and calamities (she was an orphan), was not touched to the same degree by the sorrows and tragedies that characterized the Wicked clan. Her disposition was so incredible to the Ozians that they imagined at one point that she must be an assassin, disguised “as a gullible sweetheart.”  Baum prized Dorothy’s innocent goodness, her wide-eyed, doughty good humor, but in the Wicked universe (our universe?), it became almost an affront to the inhabitants laboring under so much pain. The onslaught of sorrows broke Elphaba’s spirit, left Liir perplexed, and made Rain cry for “the whole pitfall of it, the stress and mercilessness of incident” (p. 421). Even Glinda was imprisoned and suffered during the war.  The gentle satire of Dorothy’s “soapy character” makes it clear that this author would not choose her outlook, but instead felt greater affinity for Elphaba above all, whose tortured spirit never really leaves the saga for long.

Some of my best friends are fictional …

13 Jan

In the year since The Fictional 100 was published, I have had the pleasure of chronicling the busy lives of these 100 fictional persons, drawn from world literature and legend, who seem to be making news wherever I turn. As I went to press, Sherlock Holmes appeared in a new movie, enlisting the talents of Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, and Guy Ritchie to dramatize his further adventures and boxing prowess in a steampunk universe.  In March 2010, Alice went back to Wonderland and tried on all different sizes of clothes, before putting on armor, defeating the Jabberwocky, and breaking the heart of the Mad Hatter. In January 2010, Holden Caulfield mourned the death of his creator, J. D. Salinger. A year later, Mark Twain may well be whirring in his grave as a controversial new edition of his greatest book changed the controversial speech his Huckleberry Finn had always uttered (though experience taught Huck to think about things differently). You don’t have to be “real” to make news, as my Google Alerts told me every day, filling my Inbox with the latest performances of Hamlet (the play) or Hamlet (the opera) by Ambroise Thomas, the latest reworking of Superman’s formative years, the latest Sherlock Holmes graphic novel, video game, or app, the latest variation on a character’s fictional possibilities.

I’ve been keeping up with my characters as well as I can, often with the help of knowledgeable folks I’ve met on other social media. I’ve admired their blogs, reacted to them, learned from them. While microblogging on Twitter has been a natural fit–probably the greatest discovery and delight of this year–the pull to have a convenient venue for my own macroblogging has become greater, at least in my own mind! Where else can I tell you in excruciating detail my reactions to the upcoming Gnomeo and Juliet film next month? Watch for this post, or take it as a warning, as you choose.

But my first post about a Fictional 100 character will be my upcoming entry about Oedipus, as part of the Classics Circuit’s Ancient Greeks tour later in January. See you then.

Myrtle Skete

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