Novel Thoughts: The Imperfectionists

Media is always changing the game. We create new, inventive ways to tell the same kinds of stories we’ve always told. Tom Rachman approaches and exposes the idea of media evolution and how it effects those crucial to its livelihood in The Imperfectionists.

The book tells the history of an international newspaper from its conception to its demise. Each chapter is a short story, a vignette unveiling some crucial information about one member of the newsroom or another. Rachman’s style allows us to simultaneously chastise and sympathize with each person to whom we are introduced, revealing elements of human character both at its best and at its worst.

The characters in the book have only one thing in common: the paper. Each, in his or her own way, believes himself or herself to be absolutely crucial to the paper’s ability to function. Each has an elevated sense of self-importance when it comes to occupation. However, by the end of the novel we are able to see that inasmuch as the paper needs them, they too need the paper. It has become, for most of them, an integral part of who they are and how they see themselves in the world. Life, for both the paper and those who write it, is completely dependent.

Organization in this book is undeniable. It warrants attention because it is so structured. Rachman’s style allows readers to catch glimpses of the paper’s origins without bogging us down in unnecessary details. Each story is precisely as long as it needs to be and no longer. He leaves enough details to the reader’s imagination to alleviate the problem of the reader feeling compelled to do all the work; however, he omits enough for the reader to feel like an important part of the story’s construction.

The Imperfectionists successfully portrays people the way they truly are. We aren’t always good; we aren’t always bad. We have our moments, but in the end, we’re only human. We interact with each other. We rely on each other. We fight with each other. We make up. And in the end that’s all we can really ask for.

Novel Thoughts: The Gospel According to Coco Chanel

Biography is unwieldy. It requires of the writer a certain amount both of subjectivity and objectivity, and that balance can be difficult to strike. For a writer to successfully accomplish the feat that is relating someone else’s life story, he or she must possess a certain level of ardour and incredulity. In The Gospel According to Coco Chanel, Karen Karbo has masterfully managed to relate the story of one of the most sought-after and coveted fashion icons of all time while avoiding the pitfalls of incrimination and idolization.

As per the title, Karbo’s book relates not only the facts of Chanel’s life, her loves, her losses, her idiosyncrasies, but also her philosophies, her business practices, and her overall sense of self-entitlement. Karbo makes no attempt to portray Chanel as more endearing on the page than she was in real life. Chanel was Chanel, and we as readers are invited to take her or leave her. You’ll probably want to take her.

Karbo’s tone is conversational but removed. Her voice invites readers to be as frustrated with the subject as we want to be, while latently reminding us of Chanel’s importance. We may not agree with her life choices. We may be exasperated with the incongruous vignettes that are her life story. But in the end, fascination trumps indignation.

Every story, life or otherwise, is multifaceted, and Chanel’s is no different. Arguably she never told the same story of herself twice. At least not for long. Karbo confronts these inaccuracies head-on. She is careful to ensure that her readers understand the tenuous nature of the story of Chanel, as told both by her and other people. By using this voice and making herself seem just as suspicious of the story’s accuracy as her readers are, Karbo builds credibility for herself in the mind of the reader.

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel is biography done well. It is the story of Chanel told creatively in a way that is entertaining and informative. Karbo relates the facts inasmuch as we can know them, but she does so with wit and humor, simultaneously exposing Chanel’s humanity and genius.

Novel Thoughts: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Nonfiction is a different kind of literary beast in terms of both reading and writing. The story is still there, waiting to be released, but the author’s job transforms from that of storyteller to that of fact checker. It is often (although not always) a much more sterile writing task, one that Allison Hoover Bartlett has attempted to tackle in her book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much .

Bartlett’s book relates the history of a man, John Gilkey, who is so consumed with his desire to possess rare books that he resorts to stealing them from those to whom they (rightfully?) belong. Bartlett also writes of Gilkey’s nemesis, Ken Sanders, who makes it his mission to thwart Gilkey and visit upon him the proper consequences. By the end of the book, readers are able to see that while the men operate on opposite sides of the good/evil dichotomy, they are both equally voracious in their attempts to obtain their goals.

As nonfiction books are inclined to be, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is slow to start, and the reader is often left wondering what the thesis of the work is to be. We are constantly left with open-ended questions that are evaded in subsequent chapters. By the end of the book, we still can’t be sure that we understand Gilkey and his motives anymore than we did in the beginning, as Bartlett doesn’t actually draw the connections between Gilkey, Sanders, and even herself until chapter eleven. Then the connection is tenuously explained.

Creative description of the setting seems contrived in this text, which is a common problem in creative nonfiction. Writers are only allowed so much poetic license before they are admonished for not adhering to facts. Bartlett’s case is no different. While her attempts to creatively render a factual setting are commendable, they still fall short of the descriptive vigor to which readers of fiction are accustomed. For example, Bartlett writes, “On the late spring day I drove there, the sky was a dull blue, the wind fierce, and the hills well on their way to a dry shade of brown. Off the highway, the frontage road was bordered by Harley-Davidsons, powerboats, and off-road vehicles in various states of disrepair.” While this description does paint what we can assume is an apt picture, it is rather generic in feeling.

As nonfiction books go, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is an interesting story, even if it doesn’t answer any profound questions about thieves, their motives, or ways to rehabilitate them. Bartlett has done a good job of integrating anecdotal with factual material which helps keep the reader entertained. She makes both Sanders and Gilkey seem relatable to her readers in a way that aligns us with her confusion as to why the men behave the way they do, and ultimately readers will be left with questions regarding not just the rare book trade but themselves as well.

Novel Thoughts: The Steps Across the Water

The Steps Across the Water by Adam Gopnik is an illustrated children’s chapter book that chronicles the adventurers of a young girl, Rose, as she tries to battle evil in two parallel worlds. Rose is an adopted member of her family, and throughout the story she confronts and overcomes the limitations of the term family. Gopnik uses the city of New York as an anchor to reality while constructing for his readers the fictional realm of U Nork, a city modeled on New York but much larger in scope and vision. In the beginning.

Readers familiar with fairy tales and other fantasy literature will immediately see the influence of other popular works in The Steps Across the Water. For example, the Ice Queen is able to control people when they get a piece of ice lodged in their eye, a detail the story shares with the fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” We also see the influence of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Rose, much like Lucy, is a very sensitive girl. It is she to whom the steps are revealed at the beginning. After crossing them and learning of U Nork’s dire existential circumstances, she decides to proceed by offering whatever assistance she can. We also see the element of the Ice Queen, a woman who desires only winter and leads a very cold, hard life, a woman whose mission has become the destruction of U Nork.

Gopnik’s use of sarcasm throughout the book is successful at keeping adult readers entertained, albeit until the next page. For example, when Rose arrives in U Nork, she sees people paying for various goods and services by pulling coins out of their nose. Later after she and Louis have finished having lunch, he bites down on the check and tells her that they have his teeth marks on file. He explains, “That’s the way you charge a bill here…You either gotta pay through the nose of pay through your teeth.” Rose later learns that U Nork’s problems are its foundation and who controls it. Louis tells her, “I told ya U Nork was built on money.” Gopnik uses U Nork as a vessel of critique for New York in such a way that the cynicism is recognizable but not overwhelming.

The intended audience of the story has been obscured by both the language and the actions of the characters involved. Rose is a ten-year-old girl, but she is presented in a way that causes the reader to forget her age and focus on her maturity. For example, when she first visits U Nork, Louis takes her to a nice lunch (nice in the U Norkian sense). This lunch involves being seated in a vertical human pyramid. Rose climbs up and up and tries to comfortably situate herself on someone else’s shoulders, and Gopnik writes, “She looked down, then quickly looked back up. It was so precarious!” In this case, the narrative voice seems to have slipped from that of our protagonist to the author himself. Gopnik doesn’t shy away from incorporating minor four-letter words throughout the text, and although they are not overwhelming, they do cause confusion when trying to determine an appropriate audience.

The author’s own familiarity with New York serves to create a more realistic experience; however, for readers unfamiliar with the size and scope of that city, the over-exaggerated features of U Nork will seem less tangible, less significant.

The Steps Across the Water is a mildly entertaining story, and younger readers are sure to appreciate the illustrations, which have a nostalgic quality. However, older readers are likely to be bored by the author’s insistence on the vast difference between New York and U Nork. While the issue of family and its parameters is commendably dealt with and while Rose is somewhat a sympathetic character, The Steps Across the Water is likely to be a more poignant story to a local audience, one familiar with the setting and its possibilities.

Novel Thoughts: The Secret Lives of Dresses

Erin McKean’s The Secret Lives of Dresses tells the story Dora’s evolution from unassuming, aimless college student to self-assured, motivated small-business owner. After her grandmother’s stroke, Dora finds that her sense of responsibility, along with her sense of self, lay outside her original expectations.

One of the story’s pivotal settings is on the campus of Lymond College. McKean’s description of bulletin boards filled with student jobs and her explanation of Dora’s job at the coffee shop are accurate and adeptly rendered. It becomes clear early on that the author is no stranger to today’s college campus.The conversational tone also lends itself well to this environment. Dora’s thoughts are divulged to the reader in a way makes her relatable and sympathetic.

Mimi, arguably the most important secondary character in the novel, has a unique presence in the book. Or perhaps it’s her lack of presence that makes McKean’s depiction of her so intricate in the story and necessary for the reader. McKean does an excellent job of incorporating a character, of giving a character a voice, without that character actually speaking throughout the entire novel. We know just as well as Dora what Mimi would have to say about any given topic without her actually having to say it.

While Lymond is believable enough for the reader, the town of Forsyth, where Dora lived with Mimi, is not so precisely portrayed. The interaction of the characters with one another and the details we are given about the town itself are incongruous and create confusion for the reader. At one point, we are told the mall now houses an Anthropologie, and we are told that there is more than one Target. At another junction, however, we are told that the door greeter at Costco inquires how Mimi is faring, and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. While they may seem minor discrepancies, they are enough to remind the reader of the fictitious nature of the story. If the attempt here is to create the feeling of a small town within a larger city, we can safely say the mark has been missed.

McKean also makes numerous references to cultural icons and events of importance during the nineties. She makes reference to the glove in the OJ Simpson trial, for example, and she makes mention of Dora’s Rachel haircut, an obvious reference to the Friends character. While most readers of today will understand these incorporations, they do reduce the timelessness of the story.

The story concludes as we could only hope it would, and McKean’s overall narrative structure doesn’t disappoint. There is adequate conflict, resolution, and reason to celebrate for the reader to ultimately be kept fully engaged.

Novel Thoughts: Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson has an effective style that adeptly integrates historical facts, details, and nuances into her stories. In Forge, she focuses not only on the political history, but on the cultural history as well. She incorporates numerous superstitions (for example, a cow born with two heads is a bad omen. Go figure.) of the day, as well as the sense of pride and unity felt between most of the soldiers, regardless of their race or class. Notice, I said most. She is also quick to point out that unity was not necessarily the goal of everyone involved in the battles of the war. Subplots deal with disunity within the ranks because of race and disloyalty of both British and American soldiers to the cause.

This book doesn’t gloss over the atrocities of war; in fact, one of the opening scenes deals with two boys, Curzon and Ebenezer, faced with the ultimate wartime conundrum: kill or be killed. The story follows the construction of Valley Forge and serves to highlight the difficulties faced by the soldiers there, as opposed to glorifying the decisions of the officers. Through Curzon’s story she chronicles the food shortages, clothing shortages, and dire health concerns faced by those encamped in the legendary military stronghold. The story also follows Isabel, Curzon’s love interest who was also present in Chains. Isabel acts as the female voice in the story, serving to expose the different kinds of dangers faced by female slaves. While she is a strong presence in the novel, Anderson’s description of what has happened to her and what continues to happen to her is a bit vague at times. Readers get an idea of what life is truly like for Isabel, but any dangers unique to female slaves (for instance, those of rape by a white slaveowner) are merely hinted at or suggested.

Anderson’s use of dialect in this novel seems contrived at times. She does include language contemporary to the time, and she ensures the reader’s understanding of the terms by including a glossary at the end of the story. However, the narrative voice of the story seems to slip in and out of modern language, making the use of the vernacular of the time period seem forced.

As with most novels in a series (which, evidently, this one is), the end of the novel serves to leave readers wanting more via the next novel. However, Forge ends so abruptly that readers are likely to find themselves flipping through the last few pages trying to find what they missed. Cliffhangers are one thing, but when a reader is left with this much uncertainty, it seems that more information might have been helpful and, in fact, necessary.

As with her novel Fever 1793, Anderson has included a question and answer section as well as further reading in different appendices at the back of the book. The answers to the questions are thoughtful and probably intriguing to younger readers previously unfamiliar with the history related in the story. Anderson’s books never leave a reader wondering where her information came from and where they can go to discover more should they find their interest piqued. Forge serves not only to educate young readers but to entertain them as well, putting a human face on the history so often sanitized in textbook accounts.

Novel Thoughts: 13 rue Therese

Elena Mauli Shapiro’s 13, rue Thérèse deals with the history of a woman, Louise, as it is seen through the eyes of a professor working in Paris. Louise’s belongings, now mere artifacts to be consumed by study, come to Trevor Stratton via his department secretary Josianne with whom he is apparently in love. This detail, however, is fairly easy to overlook until the very last few pages.

The way the story is told can at times seem confusing. There is no continuity of time, which could perhaps be a way to suggest that suffering of the kind Louise endures knows no temporal limitations. Readers are constantly brought back and forth through time, and by the end of the book the current year, the year in which Dr. Stratton is supposedly situated, has become all but totally ambiguous.

There is an underlying theme likening the fallout of a broken heart to the fallout of war, specifically World War 1. Louise lives in Paris during the uneasy years between the first world war and the second. Stratton is an American in Paris after World War 2. As he studies Louise’s life, he begins to understand that the war permeated every conceivable part of her life, and the broken heart from which she suffered and the decisions she made because of it were the direct result of having lived and loved during the war.

Shapiro’s vocabulary sometimes seems out of place, as if she had her hands on a word too big and too slippery for her story and wanted to use it before it got away. For example, she writes, “Louise genuflects before the alter and crosses herself with holy water.” Genuflect is a marvelous word, and most of us learned context clues in the first grade so the meaning isn’t totally obscure. But I can’t help wondering if it is perhaps a bit overwhelming here. Essentially the sentence is about that word, particularly for those of us who don’t use it frequently.

Louise’s life and the people who populate it make for a very intriguing depiction of life in 1928. Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to most of them, and she includes details that don’t necessarily pertain to the story. These details make the characters all the more fascinating because they explain so much about why they function in Louise’s life the way they do, why they make the decisions they make and why they say the things they say. They are more life-like when they are written this way, although attempting to sort out who’s doing what does become confusing sometimes.

The book’s concept is an interesting one and is presented in a dynamic way. The e-book comes complete with photo images of what readers are supposed to believe are Louise’s belongings, which makes for a more interactive reading experience. The last chapter introduces a new twist that isn’t exactly well explained, a ploy that might have weakened the ending a bit, but the story in general wraps itself up nicely, and the reader can turn the last page feeling fulfilled.

*For more information about Novel Thoughts and to see a list of upcoming books, visit the Novel Thoughts page.

Novel Thoughts and Fiction Friday

In an effort to keep things fresh and to prevent growing pains, I have two new weekly blogs planned for Just Joywriting.

The first is called Novel Thoughts. Each week one post will feature a review of sorts about a book I’ve recently read. Most often they will be works of fiction (hence the name Novel Thoughts), but there are some works of nonfiction on the list as well. I’m reluctant to call them reviews or critiques; this isn’t that kind of blog. Their purpose is mainly (and hopefully) to inspire others to read the books as well. These posts will, more often than not, appear on Thursdays.

The second is called Fiction Friday. These posts will feature a short story I’m currently working on. Generally they will be episodic; it may take three weeks (sometimes more, sometimes less) to get the whole story posted. These stories are an effort to make myself accustomed with writing fiction that other people will see. They are by no means perfect. Feel free to weigh in on them, but keep in mind my novice status with the genre. These posts will appear on Fridays, as per the title.

My goal with these posts is to explore new possibilities both in reading and in writing. I hope they inspire conversation, and I hope they bring the reader as much joy as they bring the writer.

Vonnegut and The Epizootic

The ancient world was no stranger to great civilizations. Each one had its ideals; each one had its goals. And each one reached the point at which it became, as we say back home, too big for its britches. These civilizations sought to conquer all, to be the end-all be-all of world powers. And they met their demise, in large part, because of these ambitions. That’s ancient history (if you’ll pardon the pun).

What happens when we shrink these ambitions down to the microcosm? What happens when we apply them to, say, humans? One human? And what happens when we bring them forward into the twenty-first century?

Today’s ultimate goal doesn’t appear to be one of world conquest, although I could be wrong (stranger things have happened). We seem today to be caught up in a desire for more. Not a specific more, but a general overwhelming sense of ownership of, well, anything. We like stuff because stuff is an outward expression of who we think we’re supposed to want to be. We like our cars and our clothes and our access to technology, even our kids’ educations, to wreak of success, usually of the monetary sort.

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story entitled “The Epizootic” envelopes the concept of “committing suicide to create wealth.” Although I’m not sure when this story was written, it does seem to be hauntingly applicable to what’s happening today. The story talks about “one-way men.” These are the people who are born only to move up in the world. For them, there is only one direction in which to move. When that mobility becomes tenuous, they begin to panic and seek desperate measures to insure that their children will only move up. Their suicides allow their families to collect life insurance policies that will sustain them for the duration.

Vonnegut ends the story by suggesting that “the principal industry in this country is now dying for a living.” While I think that’s hyperbolic, I do see that at times we seem like a “one-way” society. We allow ourselves to be blinded to the possibility that there are many directions in life, and not all of them are up. We make progress without enjoying what it took to get us where we are. The end goal becomes a stepping stone, a brief interlude in our quest for whatever becomes our idea of the next best thing. So what happens when we get too big for our britches? What happens when we no longer see that it is what we do that helps make us who we are, not what we drive or what we wear? I’m not suggesting that Vonnegut’s Epizootic will ever become a real thing. But his story does seem to expose a certain weakness in our nature that we should no longer ignore.

Re-runs and Re-reads

Growing up my family used to watch the same movies over and over until we were so well versed that we no longer needed the actual film to enjoy the experience of watching it. We didn’t branch out very frequently (to quote from our repertoire: “We don’t normally go where we ain’t already been.”), but occasionally we would adopt something new. Sometimes we chose well; other times we’d revert to the standards. They made us laugh. They made us cringe. They were comfortable.

Books affect me the same way. Branching out is always fun, and trying new authors feels like living dangerously sometimes. But there are certain standards, certain stories, certain authors that remain constant. These books I’ve read over and over again, some of them so many times I can quote whole sections. The characters have become a part of my reality, so real to me that it’s difficult to conceive of them the same way every time I open the pages. At some point, I reason, they should have learned from these mistakes. They should know as well as I what is going to happen in the next chapter because we’ve all been there before. Except we haven’t. The characters never age, although my perception of their actions and my ability to relate to them does. I love them for who they are to me and what I feel like they could be if they were only given a few more pages. The possibilities are endless.

The scenery in these books and the action feels a bit like watching a familiar film. I know the cracks in the sidewalks and how the paint peels from the porch railing. I know on what side of the castle the moss grows because I’ve seen it in my mind so many times. It’s just as real to me as anything I see on screen.

I look to the characters for consistency. People, real people, are slippery, and it’s very easy to put trust in the wrong place. We don’t want to think that we are the only ones who have our best interests at heart, but so often that seems to be the case. But the people in the books remain the same through every read. They don’t stab the reader in the back. They don’t modify their behavior to save themselves at the reader’s expense. I always know where I stand with them, even if it’s not where I want to be. I respect them for this. I always will. They have become a comfort zone, a place to land when I’m looking for something predictable, something with order, a welcome distraction when I feel like I’m losing control.