Friday, June 12, 2009

Book Bite - Overseas Adventures

It’s said that there are only two ways to hone your writing craft and become a better writer: read a lot and write a lot. Not only should you read great works of fiction, but you should read pedestrian or even bad works as well, so that you learn what not to do. In the fast-paced world that we live in, even with the best of time management skills, I never seemed to have the time to work on my writing or to spend time reading. This was a serious crime, considering my love and passion for both things. How did I let this happen? I asked myself.

The good news is I’m working on ways to improve upon this, and make time in my life for those things which I truly love and give me pleasure. I’ve dedicated my lunch hour at work to reading time. I’ve also tried to dedicate more time in the evenings and weekends for my writing. However, one of the great developments in the last year has been the book club that I was invited to join. This has forced me to read at least one book a month, and it has also forced me to read outside of my favorite genres and explore other styles of writing that I might not have otherwise been exposed to. The following is a brief review of several of the books I have read over the last few months, all of which by coincidence happen to take place overseas.
The historical fiction, Moloka’i by Alan Brennert, follows the story of a young Hawaiian girl who develops leprosy and is exiled to the leper colony on the island of Moloka’i. Set in the 1800s, it is a heartbreaking look at the misunderstandings of leprosy, and the shame and ostracizing of those who contracted it, as well as their families.

This book was very depressing, with one terrible turn of events after another. The subject matter was so sad; it was hard to force myself to continue reading it. However, the main character was plucky and engaging and I kept reading because I wanted to know what happened to her. This book does have a victorious, redemptive end, but after slogging through so much misery, it seemed like too little too late. But maybe that was the point? For these misunderstood and mistreated people a cure and acceptance came too late.

At times the writing was effectively sensitive while at other times it was very melodramatic. Although the descriptions of Hawaii and the settings are vivid, I think the author tried to do too much in one book: recount medical history of leprosy, discuss the fall of Hawaiian culture as it is taken over by the U.S.A., tell the personal story of this young girl, as well as discuss the pagan spirituality of the Hawaiian natives versus the new influx of Catholicism and Christianity. All of this was written with an often detached, non-committal point of view, which I suppose is a common problem with historical fiction, it reads more like a survey of history than a compelling story with heart.

Another work that felt like a real-life story thinly veiled by fiction was Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. The novel is told mostly in backstories, by the narrator, a journalist stationed in Thailand. He begins to investigate the suicide of an American anthropologist in a Thai jail, where she was serving 50 years for murder, and as he delves into her story, he becomes more obsessed. He goes into great detail about the native Thai tribe that the anthropologist lived with and their culture, religion, rituals etc.

Then, mid-story, Berlinski takes a huge detour and spends quite a bit of the book describing a missionary family’s journey to Thailand and their work there trying to convert the natives. He describes in detail several generations of this family. I figured all of this would intertwine and become important to the main plot line with the anthropologist, but it turns out it really has nothing to do with it, which was frustrating and felt like a waste of time. Not only that, but this detour slowed down the pace of the murder-mystery that is at the heart of the book.

Fieldwork has the same problem as Moloka’i, in that the author describes both sides of a culture war, but refuses to choose a side. I don’t need to be told what to think about any given topic, but when a fiction author is non-committal about who is in the wrong and who is in the right, it leaves for lukewarm feelings about the whole story in general.

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell takes place in England in the present day. In the modern day, we meet Iris, a single woman who runs an antique clothing store. She is contacted by a mental institution. They notify her, the next of kin, that her great aunt, Esme Lennox, is being discharged into her care. The only problem is Iris never knew the great aunt even existed. Her grandmother always spoke of being an only child. The rest of the book bounces back and forth between the present day and the 1920s when Esme was a child. We see how Esme affects Iris’ life and challenges her, in the present day, while we also see into the past, how Esme’s free spirit didn’t sit well in the repressed British culture she grew up in. In contrast to her wild spirit, we also meet Esme’s sister Kitty, and are shown the events that unfolded that lead to Esme being committed at the age of 16.

I really enjoyed the flashbacks to Esme as a child. The author’s depictions of that time period are very vivid and Esme is an interesting character. She was a creative, imaginative girl who had the misfortune of being involved in some tragic events. It was heartbreaking to see how mental trauma was dealt with, especially in women, during that time period. It was obvious the author had done her homework in regards to this history.

The book was a quick read, and in some ways a real page turner, as the author slowly reveals the events that lead up to how Esme “disappeared” from her family. However, the ending was cliché, predictable and unsatisfying. Additionally, I had a hard time connecting to Iris as one of the main characters. I found her unlikeable for several reasons, and felt that some of the side plotline with her and her step-brother to be unbelievable and forced. It was an interesting gothic family drama, but I didn’t appreciate the conclusions the author came to, after everything the characters had been through.

Regardless of how successful or unsuccessful the book club picks have been, they’ve all been useful in helping me to grow as a person and a writer. If you end up reading any of these three books, leave me a comment and let me know what you thought. Or, if you’ve read a book that wasn’t very good, but taught you a lot about “what not to do” when writing, I invite you to share your thoughts as well.


chandy said...

Great reviews Davina!

My favorite of that bunch (which isn't saying much, because I didn't read the third) was definitely Moloka'i. It was one of those books that set me to researching the era, the setting, and leprosy on my own, and I always enjoy a book that stays with me long enough to make me want to do some side research. I really enjoyed Rachel as a character, and I thought the author did a good job of developing the other characters, especially considering there were so many of them (the other patients, Rachel's family, the nuns, etc.) I agree that it was beyond depressing what they all went through, but that isn't really a deterrant for me. I love a good cry sometimes, and what better way to do that than read a miserable book?

I sure hope we have some good picks coming up for you soon! I'm eager to hear about a book that you adore!

D.L. White said...

I didn't really "hate" any of these books, I could just take them or leave them. Authors who remain uncommitted to establishing the morality of the world they've constructed leave me uncommitted to the book. It has no deeper emotional impact. If I had to pick one I liked the most, it would have probably been Moloka'i. The characters were more developed than in the other two books. I would have to agree with that.

I've read three amazing books recently that I loved, that I'll be dedicating a separate post to: Secret History, Fevre Dream and The Thirteen Clocks.

Jessie said...

Wait, wait, wait. You loved Secret History? Talk about a depressing story. But I'll save my comments for your post.

I have to agree with the point about authors who refuse to take a moral stand about the issues they are writing. It's like the authors don't want to offend their potential readers. And I think that is a fairly recent development. You would never read an uncommitted Charles Dickens book. It doesn't exist! And it's those stands that have enabled his works to withstand centuries.

Maybe I'm drawing a false conclusion but it seems to me the moral relativity movement has lead to weak authors and an unwillingness to judge their characters' actions. How can you create a story without making a judgment about its characters?

D.L. White said...

@Jessie - YES! You hit the nail on the head and so succinctly described the problem that I couldn't quite put my figure on. I think you are dead-on with your assessment of moral relativity or finding its way into literature.

Yes, "The Secret History" was very depressing. It was a Greek tragedy (literally and figuratively). Not a book that anyone wants to say they loved (for fear of people thinking you're a freak or into bacchanals). But I appreciated the things it had to say about morality and the power of ideas. Plus, it reminded me of college (except for the orgies - ha ha). You'll definitely have to read my full review when I post it.