Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Writing a second book that achieves the same level of success of your first, or even exceeds it, is one of the harder things to do in publishing. The task become particularly difficult if your first book was The Historian. In this second effort Ms. Kostova departs from the supernatural, and leaves all elements of anything fantastic behind her. The topic embraced is perhaps slightly less than that of Dracula in universal appeal; some may even see it as self-indulgent and elitist: art history.

Subject matter aside, the story lacked the intrigue to drive me, as a reader, forward. There are questions raised and rational people do strange things to arouse curiosity, but there is nothing in this world of art history as to truly make me wonder or care about to what's going on. Once I had read far enough into the book and discerned the what the crux of the story was about--a point which came too far into the novel--I asked myself, 'If all involved in this matter fail, what then?' Sadly, I didn't care, such was my attachment to the characters and investment in the story.

The major issue that stymies interest and stunts the novel's development is that of repetition, and it's very obvious in a story where so little actually happens. Robert Oliver, an exceptionally gifted artist, attempts to attack a painting and here the story begins. He is in the psychiatric care of Dr. Andrew Marlow, who is also a gifted artist. The primary story is told by these two men and two women, also artist, who were Robert's previous love interest. Marlow proceeds to take us places and through a good deal of travel and research, unravels Oliver's past as to better assess his current condition. Oliver is the unifying thread among all the characters.

Not only do all the character share an erudite interest in art, but any time anyone of them mentions Oliver they all lapse into character description of mythical proportion; each saying the same thing, in different words, for far too many pages repeated in an all too often cycle. Oliver becomes a larger-than-life 'swords and sorcery' hero armed with a paint brush. This incessant litany of characteristics gets old quickly and never lets up. It was good the first time and alright the second, but the extreme overuse turned a nuance into a nuisance. All the characters also share a love of reading: classic works, contemporary pulp, histories, biographies and books of poetry. Rarely has a more homogeneous group of people been collected into one book.

The story is told from alternating character's perspectives (all but Oliver's) and letters from the late ninetieth century between niece and uncle-in-law. The letters, while initially of no consequence, eventually grow into something interesting and prove to be the backbone of the story. They also give rise to an eye brow raising point of plot convenience that I thought had been previously reserved only for Hollywood.

These letters are crucial to the story's main elements of plot and they are cherished above all other possessions by Oliver. So much so that he travelled great distance, and undertook criminal action to obtain them that he may read them everyday. In the very beginnings of the novel he simply gives the letters away, as though they meant nothing. At the time this occurred, I didn't know enough of the story to see it as odd, but upon finishing the book, considering Oliver's compulsive obsession that has been uncovered, it made no sense at all. Unless of course the letters are to be used by the author to propel events along (no matter how slowly.)

As unbelievable as the previously mention plot development was perhaps it is negligible in comparison Dr. Marlow's position in the novel. Working in a psychiatric ward in Washington D.C. he apparently has no more interesting patient than a mute painter who tried to stab an inanimate object: a point I found very hard to believe. The obsession Marlow displays--in the course of his work and at large personal expense far beyond anything he has previously exercised on a patient--is a bit hard to swallow. He merely 'checks in' on his many other patients in a very cursory way; he is completely taken with Oliver even though he shows no signs beyond antisocial behavior that he is a threat to anyone. Also somewhat questionable is Marlow's professional integrity and his status as a believable character is his ability to fall in love with every female character he meets be they twenty years younger than he, a patient's ex-wife, or a woman from a painting.

Most questionable of all was a very odd story mechanic where people write everything down in letter form even though the story is being told in the email age. Phone calls are rare, even when one would seemingly make more sense than a letter. There is an almost forced feeling of antiquity displayed in the novel . It was as if Kostova wanted to set the primary story a hundred years earlier, but had her hand forced by the time frame of the impressionist movement. Mary, one of Oliver's love interest, can't simply share the events of her life with Marlow, she has to commit them to paper. The letters Marlow obtains from Oliver are in French and a female acquaintance--one Marlow was previously in love with, no surprise--goes to the trouble of translating them and he insist that she not email but again commit them to paper. This mechanic not only hurts in matters of verisimilitude and but gives rise to a new problem.

All of the characters share the same tone of voice. It's not to say the personalities exhibited are bland, only all are cut from the same cloth. They write the same way, they speak in the same way, and they all recall Robert Oliver the same way. There is not a spark of diversity to be found in the entire cast.

This is a book that is perhaps two hundred pages too long and seemed to be given the editorial benefit of the doubt in acknowledgment of Kostova's past sales. The material within the covers is more than strong enough to make a decent story but is so heavily diluted with descriptions of Robert Oliver and anecdotes of no relevance that is hard to stick around long enough to find what's really important. The book shares a very similar structure to The Historian; as if Ms Kostova were filling out a template. To her credit, she choose a phenomenal model to copy. However, certain characters exist to fill similar roles and some were virtually interchangeable from her past book.

Her writing attributes are still in tact and the words on the page are as lovely as ever. The control over the pace of events is as evident here as it was in The Historian. Unfortunately, the complete lack of tension makes The Swan Thieves pedestrian enough to be tedious. My two favorite displays of Ms. Kostova's writing should have been omitted in my mind and only made me regret what could have been with a more focused eye and a small measure of diversity.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fan Involvement in the Creative Process

I'm going to tread over thinly veiled ice in what's to follow so if you choose to keep reading, walk softly. There's a growing trend of author interaction with their fans that seems to be the new way of things in publishing. It's good, and for the most part, free marketing. On the whole I don't have a problem with it. Until it comes to fan interaction with an author.

To what degree do writer's need to listen to the voice of their fans? Readers are entitled to their opinions, and they often list all the things they want to see included in a writer's next story. They dictate what they see as a writer's strengths and weaknesses and what they should focus on in their writing. I personally don't think there is any obligation on the writer's part to listen to what is said and there should be no expectation from reader's that their opinions are being given any consideration.

This seems to be crossing a line to me. A writer is entitled to writer whatever story they want. Sometimes they get lucky and other people like it, sometimes not. I can only hope author's take these fan suggestions with a boulder-sized grain of salt, because I don't want to read published fan fiction crafted by the pen of, "Author X."

Fan service is just that. It does not need to be bound and published by Simon and Schuster. Writers, and to expand on the definition of the word, "artist" don't do their work for their fans. Does anyone really think that John Irvine cared if people read or liked Until I Find you? Sure, his feelings may have been hurt if it got crappy reviews and the book bombed at retail, but it was a book that he--as the creator--had to get off his chest and he did so to satisfy himself. The same is true for Beethoven or Michangelo or any other, 'artist' of your choosing.

I once read a book by my favorite author and hated it. From start to finish, I didn't have anything positive to say. It was because of what I deemed a bad book from a writer that I thought so highly of and expected so much from that led me to think, "I can do better than this," and start writing myself.

Input is one thing, and well made suggestions/criticisms are always appreciated, but to see some of the commentary today on author websites, "You betrayed me!" and so on is nauseating. I don't think fans can be betrayed; let down, sure but that's the extent of it. No writer is obligated to write works that will please fans of their previous efforts. (Don't even get me started on pseudonyms.) It's not as if there aren't a few thousand other books published in a year that you might enjoy, times the thousands of other books for all the previous years that publishing has been around.

It seems I've adopted my 'rant' voice. Perhaps that what is to come in the internet age: an endless cycle of complaints in varying degrees of expression.

Shaking hands and signing books at a reading is all well and good, but I don't think that any creative process is collaborative, and so I do get a little bit nervous when see running commentary from a writer to their fans. It seems to me if you don't want to read a story that's written there's plenty of other material out there that may be of interest to you. And if we lived in a different age, a time long out of human memory know as, 'twenty years ago', complainers wouldn't even have had a vehicle to voice their disgust.

Oh, wait a minute… I guess that last bit goes for me too.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Collector by John Fowles

This is not a feel good book. Nor is it one that I think anyone would say they had 'fun' reading. It is dark, it is blunt, and extremely compelling. This is one of the books that make me wonder how an author can do so much with so few pages. It is a concise narrative of obsession gone too far.

The eponymous entomology hobbyist, Frederick, is an impeccably clean young man; kind hearted and generous in his own way. He is boring, simple and while not uneducated he is without any strong passions in life; right up until he kidnaps an art student in broad daylight under the London sky. He thinks himself to be very smart and can justify his actions to the very end. He is socially inept and finds taking the woman who has captured his interest captive the only way that he would ever have a chance to express his feelings. Most disturbing of his character traits is that he sees nothing wrong with his actions.

I can't imagine a reader not sympathizing with Miranda Grey. After the terrible experience of being abducted she is treated like royalty and given everything she can ask for; expect her freedom. I think my own personal real life experience (I was once twenty years old for an entire year and have a bachelors and masters of the arts in piano performance--one of the arts Miranda is always talking about) inhibited me from caring about her as much as I should have. She keeps a diary during her captivity and in addition to current events she recalls much happier past times. Most of her recollections are about friends and a certain person--G.P.--whom she is in love with in all ways but physical attraction. G.P. is more than twice her age in addition to being a 'romantic' artistic figure: aloof, non-conformist, an ideal hero of the younger generation. She is most attracted to his skill as an artist but also his bohemian lifestyle, and his live for the day attitude.

About a third of the way through the novel, Fowles starts a loose commentary on certain intellectual issues via Miranda's journal: humanity, vague points on religion and incessantly art. Frederick has given no thought to atomic warfare, but has no qualms in stealing away Miranda's life. Miranda believes herself to be a pacifist as it is in line with her 'hippie'/counter-culture movement she was part of before her abduction. Meanwhile, she struggles daily with the thought of finding a way to kill Caliban, her name for Frederick, in an effort to free herself, not out of any desire to want to hurt another living thing. She has no faith--if for no other reason than seemingly it is the way the 'in' crowd believes--yet constantly pleads to God to let her live through her ordeal. The on going art debate was the most interesting of the three.

Miranda's love interest G.P is a hippie for all practical purposes. I knew such people when I was in grad school… and despised them. He is the anti-Frederick in every way from appearance to emotion. Miranda herself was a bit eyeball-rolling-inducing for me as she admits to having no personal life experience in any of the area's she harps on and is more impressionable than the average twenty year old. And then there is Frederick/Caliban, and his 'art' juxtaposed against what Miranda has learned in school, what G.P. has shown her from real world experience, and what life as a prisoner in a young man's cellar has taught her to be true.

Some of the points made were a bit to subtle to truly impact, others prematurely developed, but what I loved was the presentation of the idea gave the reader something to think about.

Miranda is never once physically or sexually abused, which only heightens her fear of an impending act. What she never understands, and keeps her in a justifiable state of terror, is the true extent of Frederick's obsession. Just having her is enough, he doesn't need to 'do' anything.

All three characters (we only know of G.P. Through Miranda's journal but he is central to the story) are unified by their conceit and arrogance, and blinded by what they would call intelligence. I'd be afraid to read a book with more, and stronger superiority complexes than the cast of The Collector.

One could argue that there is some deus ex machina in the beginning--which in itself is a break from the normal use of a poor device. Caliban manages to come into substantial financial security and see his family safe to Australia so he just happens to live alone in great wealth the rest of his life. Yes, it could have been chance, and that is the way it is presented, but it felt a bit too convenient to me. And despite all the sympathy any reader could muster for Miranda, it was a bit tedious to listen to a twenty year old ramble about what is and isn't art. Especially so as it becomes clear that she has no opinions of her own, rather she is swayed by most anyone with influence in her life. Finally, I don't know how convinced I was by any of Fowles arguments of the arts and humanity.

My perceived flaws are infinitesimal and easily out weighted by the novels strong points: three phenomenal characters and one extraordinary circumstance. Take note that I didn't say I liked all the characters--in point of fact, I didn't like any of them--but I don't want that to take away from the skill with which they are crafted or the execution of their presentation in developing a story. My initial perceived shallowness of Miranda's character may in fact only be the most convincing and solid aspect of Fowles' writing: he perfectly captured a fleet-minded, impressionable, twenty year old women. And to think that this is a debut work. Talk about making an impact with a first publication…

I don't do horror fiction or anything of that nature and that is not what The Collector is. But it should scare you. It's plot is too vivid, and it's criminal all too real. It's not commercial and it's not a 'cozy' page turner. It is, however, thrilling and it will keep you reading.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book Sellers and Liquor Stores: What one can learn from the other.

I'd been wanting to do a survey of book stores in my area and although I didn't plan it, today was the start of that journey. I was primarily going to mention independent books stores as they are businesses I like to support, but in defense of the big boys who are helping to put the little guys out-of-business: their bargain book selection rocks.

I could be wrong, and I'll definitely look and ask about it when I visit independent books stores soon, but I don't think the independent stores can manage this angle of the publishing industry. I wish I could support writers to the fullest and pay every cent they ask for a book, but the reality is I read a lot, I abuse my library, and there is only so much I can really commit to my personal collection. So if it is something I just have to have on day one, like Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves (I didn't even know she had a new book coming out until this past Thrusday) I don't mind going to a local book seller and getting it… because that is a very rare act for me. But concerning my backlog of books that comprises my "to be read list…"

Books-a-Million really shines. There selection of bargain books is huge. I mean, really Huge. Some title were a couple years old, others were five to eight years old, everything I saw was in great condition, and the highest price paid was $6.99. An hour of browsing (tangent alert: does 'hour' get an, 'a' or an 'an'?) and $28.49 later I escaped with six hardback books. No shipping fees; negligible milage and gas expense.

Feeling as self-satisfied as I was, I walked into Barnes and Noble on the way home. It's not favoritism, but the difference between the industry giants was black and white. I'm only focusing on bargain books: their selection was tiny in comparison and the display was prohibitive. Upon leaving Barnes and Noble, which didn't take long, I was still happy and went to buy some rum. Upon entering your average run-of-the-mill liquor store everything about my book buying experience was apparent to me.

It's all about presentation. This is what Books-a-Million had a grasp on that Barnes and Noble was in the dark about. The former had all their bargain books displayed face front. It was fast shopping through their mammoth selection and easy on my eyes--making me more inclined to stay there longer. Barnes and Noble had all their bargain books with only the spine showing, making consumers squint at the hundreds of titles on a shelf.

Your bottom shelf--well--hooch is occupying a floor display and a lot of space, like Stephanie Meyer's books: its a huge seller and expedites shopping by making what's in demand readily available and easy to find. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of The Brothers Karamazov is tucked away on a bookshelf, not in the most traffic heavy part of the store, much like Cruzan's single barrel estate rum: not because the product isn't any good, rather is it niche. Books-a-Million has managed to apply this same simple logic to display it's bargain books. The ease of shopping combined with the quantity of what they had certainly won me over.

As to what I bought: Innocents Aboard by Gene Wolfe (a collection of short stories I'd never heard of) The Sun over Breda and The Kings Gold which will usher me into Arturo Perez-Reverte's writing--whose praise I can no longer ignore, M is for Magic, by Neil Gaiman, who I have a true love/hate relationship with, The book of Lost Things by John Connolly, (which I've already read, this copy was a gift) and Pickles to Pittsburgh, a children's books that was actually the most expensive purchase of the day.

I am very happy with myself today, and excited to find a similar happy inducing trait at local independent books stores in the future. Now, my master plan is to convince all liquor stores to sell the top shelf booze at the bargain bin price.

Any suggestions?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Rum Reviews: The First Installment

I've neglected this nook of my blog long enough. In point of fact, this is my first visit. I am here now to remedy that situation. In the following series I will give you the skinny on the good, the wretched, and the divine concerning what you should be drinking: rum.

It was currency in the Caribbean in the old days, George Washington demanded it be served at his inauguration, Ernest Hemingway lived off a diet of rum and shark flesh during his stint in Cuba, and now I'm here to help you navigate the top, the bottom, and all shelves in between concerning one of the world's greatest treasures.

Nothing fruity here, no flavored spirits to hide terrible production, or inept craftsmanship, just the booze. Feel free to suggest what you will for future installments and liquor representatives are more than welcome to provide me with your product concerning tasting and review.

The Rum Reviews I

Depaz Blue Cane Rhum Argicole

This rum immediately comes off as a bad French liquor: cognac, armagnac, or some manner of brandy gone terribly wrong. I’m well versed in the ways bottle tipping and so I don’t write these words casually but there is little redeeming quality here. It’s thin and fiery. Third world peasants would do well to acquire as much as they can in an effort to keep warm in the winter because I’m not sure the burn is good for anything else. The aroma is pleasant enough to make you think there is some substantial flavor but sharp and painful are the only words that come to mind.

It’s hard to recommend Depaz as sipping the ninety proof booze is nearly toxic and the top-shelf price (about $35) is too high to justify keeping your coke company considering other, cheaper, less napalm-esque tasting options. It comes in a pretty bottle, with a nice label and an enticing scent but the truth remains: ya can’t polish a turd. Like a cheap Vegas whore; your money is better spent elsewhere.

Verdict: Avoid at all cost.

Mount Gay Original Reserve Barbados Rum

Mount Gay claims to be the oldest distillery of rum in existence: 1708. I’m inclined to believe them as they seemed to have perfected the craft and turned it into an art. The odd color is perhaps the most striking thing about this rum; not a perfectly clear nor a true brown or amber. The lack of wood is also apparent in the nose, where there is virtually no scent outside of a standard alcohol smell. But the taste more than delivers for any of these perceived short comings.

This bottle is what standard rum everywhere should taste like. Mount Gay Original Reserve should be the bar. Like the Depaz it is thin and slightly fiery but with a wonderful soft flavor--highlighted by a gentle sweetness--that can be enjoyed and appreciated all by itself. A mixed drink here wouldn’t be out of line but perhaps a bit decadent. Assuming you get the rest of the drink right, this rum will make the cleanest most refreshing Mojito ever. This rum is to be enjoyed by those who can appreciate life’s simple things done to near perfection.

Verdict: Well worth more than the price of admission.

Pyrat Rum XO Reserve

Pyrat Rum is brought to us by the Patron Spirits Company and while it is more than solely good marketing (if only a little more) it is difficult to decide what to do with this one. While it maintains the standard 40% volume alcohol this is a rum for those who like Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum without sacrificing any of the alcohol. Initially there is a lot of flavor going on for Pyrat, but about a half second after swallowing it dissipates into nothingness. There is a gentle lingering on the palette but not enough to call true ‘aftertaste.’ The most standout feature of this one is the perceived sweetness--diabetics beware! A 750ml bottle will set you back twenty bucks making the price right for the overall product. Drinking it straight is a little like taking a straw to molasses and enjoying the sugar rush, but if you're gonna party with fruity mixed drinks it blends well, taste great, and the bottle stands out on your counter top to give you a free conversation with any inquisitive females in attendance.

Verdict: I’d have to grade this one a favorable, “D+,” if such a mark were possible in school. As long as you know how to use it (mixed with sweet flavored fruit juice or any saccharine drink in general) things will go well, but woe betide any who go on a bender armed only with Pyrat, you may fall overboard.

Be sure to check back next month as I will bring you more of the best, worst, and the in between concerning rum: what you should be drinking.

Monday, January 4, 2010

A wasted opportunity

So I watched It Might Get Loud the other day. The title may well be the best thing about the film. It is supposed to be a history of the electric guitar told by three rock guitarist of different generations. Perhaps it succeeded on this front, but not really in my eyes.

Even if it did, it could have been so much more. There can be conflict in a documentary and there can be expression; only don't look for them in this film. I felt they asked Jimi Page, The Edge, and Jack White to 'interview' each other, rather than have someone with a storytelling agenda press forward with certain issues. It's not exactly as if any of the three are journalist...

The best underused content to me was Page saying--out loud-- "Pop music is rubbish," and then all parties involved let a comment like that die... even the lead guitarist from a 'pop band' like U2.

It could have been so much more.