Hooked on History II

Roman Main Street

The rest of the story. Originally posted on my Long Ago & Far Away blog in August of 2013:

It happened in an instant. I’d read the last page of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, closed the book and saw this kid running through ancient streets. Who was he?

The fact of real people living their lives through cataclysmic events overwhelmed me. How do they do it? How did they do it? Who were they?

It has long baffled me that, in the midst of upheaval, famine, war, and illness, people go on. They cope. They live their lives. Somehow. Whether the British during the Blitz or a nameless dancing boy escaped from a sinking ship, people adjust and do what life requires.

I was compelled to examine this resilience; to imagine their stories. My thoughts flashed to the times and places that fascinate me most – Late Antique Syria and points further east – and I knew I had tales to tell.

That was in 1993.

My life moved on. From time to time I thought about that kid who wouldn’t completely go away. I now knew who he was and what he was doing but I was busy. I left London for the US, got married, then left the US for Indonesia. While on a much needed vacation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, the plot spun out before me over the course of three days. But I still thought I’d never really write it. I was, though, compiling reference materials as I could. All that time the resources were few and expensive. I had to request an out-of-print Amazon search for the book The Early Islamic Conquests by Fred Donner. It was nearly 2 years before I received a notice that they had found it. I paid $80.00 for it in 2001. (It looks like it’s playing hard to get again.)

Life carried on. I returned to the US in 2002, ran a decorative painting/murals business for eight years and designed scenery and lighting for several professional theatre companies. In 2010, we moved to Florida and I started yet another career – this time in a cubical!

About eighteen months ago my work schedule became so crazy that my only possible creative time was the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t going to make it to my downtown art studio at 5am, so I decided it was time to write. The story is finally under way.

What strikes me now is how difficult it would have been to write any of my planned stories back in the early 1990s. There was no WWW. And, few of my primary reference books were published in 1993, most were written much later. If I could have learned to read Arabic, Greek, Latin and Aramaic while camping out at SOAS, I might have had a chance. So, although I’ve taken the long way to it, it’s just as well.

I would love to hear the research methods of others writing about obscure times and places. Do you think you could have tackled your current projects in the pre-Internet world?

Reading Response: The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

I have somehow managed, while working 7 days/11 hours, to complete reading a book and writing a blog post.  I’m reposting it here from it’s original location on my Long Ago and Far Away Blog.

Posted on March 14, 2014

I have mentioned before that I prefer to approach a book knowing only the genre and that it is recommended by someone aware of my interests. Reading back covers, reviews and synopses prevents me from experiencing the story the way the writer intended – a deliberate unfolding of information and events.

I began The Gift of Rain in the same manner. I knew it was an historical fiction set in WWII Penang, Malaysia – nothing more. I was excited about it because I spent four years across the Malacca Straits in Sumatra and made a brief visited to Penang while in the region. I suspected the book would have a Chinese focus because the author’s name indicates a Chinese heritage. (Malaysia is primarily Malay, Chinese and Indian.) I hoped though that there would be enough Malay environment to feed my hunger for something familiar but rare in literary resources.

Unfortunately for me, The Gift of Rain takes place at the crossroads of English, Chinese and Japanese cultures. Other than the tropical weather and interspersed Malay words and food, there is little of ethnic Malay culture here.

More importantly, this book is driven by a deep psychological study of a relationship between a charismatic, middle-aged Japanese man and a coming-of-age teenage boy. The writer’s fascination with mentorship through martial arts is clear but I just could not enter into it.

Early on, I broke my habit of not peeking. I was having trouble getting into the book so I did a quick, reluctant scan of the blurbs. That intrigued me enough to keep me going but also grieved me because that foreknowledge broke the immediacy of the first person narrative. I didn’t like knowing what the writer had not already revealed. But it did add some tension – knowing what was coming, identifying the clues along the way – and it gave me hope that I would eventually be gripped. I never really was.

I couldn’t identify with the Japanese character’s seductive power over the protagonist. (To be clear, this is emotional and cultural seduction, not physical.) I understood it and it was intellectually believable, but it didn’t do it for me. That made it difficult to remain sympathetic to the main character as he became drawn into the Japanese atrocities. It’s hard to walk with a first person protagonist when you can’t identify with his motivations.

I had several other difficulties connecting with the story. Japanese martial arts figure prominently – no attraction for me. There was little action other than about 30 pages towards the end of the book. Without more emotional connection to the story I needed something to keep me turning the page. The Japanese horrors did make me angry. That was more reason for me put the book down.

But after all of that, I still intend to read Mr. Eng’s next book, The Garden of Evening Mists – another intersection of Chinese and Japanese culture. At least I am forewarned this time. I will read it because it is set in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia where I spent an important, rare vacation in 2002. It was there that the plot of my own novel came tumbling out of my brain. Something about the cool air and the tea. I am passionate about tea and this is a plantation area. And I remain hungry for anything set in the Malay environment. The only other English language fiction I have ever read placed there is Clavell’s King Rat. (Oh, WOW, what a story!) And it is, again, about the intersection of Westerners and their Japanese oppressors with nothing of the Malay context other than a few locations, words and food references. I will also read Mr. Eng’s next book because he is a wonderful word crafter. I am well aware that my lack of passion for The Gift of Rain is all about me and not about his skills as a writer. I understand why this book has turned heads and won awards. He deserves the accolades. Few books can capture the heart of every reader.

This brings me once again to my decision not to write starred reviews. My purpose here is to describe my response and offer my observations in case they are helpful to someone else. I would love to interact with anyone who has read the book and had a different experience. Clearly this book is a great read to the right audience.

If you are interested in psychological character studies, Chinese Malay or Japanese culture or martial arts and beautiful word-crafting – recommended.

If you want Malay culture or action adventure – not so much.

Next up: River God – Wilbur Smith (This is my first Wilber Smith read – as usual, starting with zero info ahead of time. Already fun.)

Sneaky Exposition

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng

The Gift of Rain – Tan Twan Eng

One purpose of this blog is for recording observations on the nitty-gritty of writing.

I am currently reading Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain – longlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. As I picked up the book this afternoon, a few paragraphs in Chapter 6 stood out as worthy of a little dissection.

The text reads as follows:

We walked to the temple near her house. The crowd was thin, as it was still a few days before the actual festival. We entered the grounds of the temple and walked past the stone statues of snarling, serpentine dragons and mythical birdmen, all painted in brilliant hues of turquoise, red, blue, and green.

The temple was constructed in 1845 by the Siamese community on an extensive piece of property granted by Queen Victoria. Built in the traditions of Siamese architecture, it was trimmed generously in gold and maroon.  Stone reliefs of the Buddha decorated the walls in a repeating motif.  We walked past two guardian dragons on long concrete plinths, their bodies curling like waves, and left our shoes by the entrance, where a sign in English warned: “Beware of The Thiefs!” Aunt Yu Mei was disgusted at the misspelling.

I wish I could scribble lines and arrows to explain my thoughts but I will try to break this apart with text.

I have included the first paragraph to show the context of the second: that the writing is in first person and that the next paragraph takes place during some activity of the Point of View character.

So, to pick apart the main paragraph:

The temple was constructed in 1845 by the Siamese community on an extensive piece of property granted by Queen Victoria. Built in the traditions of Siamese architecture, . . .

This one and one-half sentence stretch is straight exposition. But it sneaks in without feeling like author intrusion because the reader already knows that the POV character is familiar with the building, and so, can believably bring this information to mind. Being in the first person, there is a sense of narration to the text which allows retelling by the POV character, so exposition becomes part of the storytelling.

But that’s all there is. Just one and one-half sentences of backstory. It must have been tempting to run on with more historical information about the temple’s history, etc. But instead, the 2nd half of the 2nd sentence and the next one: . . . it was trimmed generously in gold and maroon. Stone reliefs of the Buddha decorated the walls in a repeating motif. . .  —  describe the environment presently experienced by the POV character and anchors the observations in the here and now. It is informational but it feels more like a sensory perception.

Next we are right back to the movement or action of the characters: We walked past two guardian dragons on long concrete plinths, their bodies curling like waves, and left our shoes by the entrance, . . . — descriptive detail tied to the moment’s movement and, therefore, sensory rather than intrusive telling.

Finally, Mr. Eng ties the descriptive detail — . . . where a sign in English warned: “Beware of The Thiefs!” . . . to a wonderful character expression in, Aunt Yu Mei was disgusted at the misspelling.

There is also the feeling of the paragraph going from a wide to a telescopic lense focus: wide angle for the bit of backstory, zooming in on the general description and drawing closer to follow the characters’ specific movement and then the close-up of Aunt  Yu Mei.

I have no idea how conscious Mr. Eng was of writing technique while composing this paragraph – whether it was deliberate and hard won or flowed subconsciously from a well practiced craft, but it is fun to pick apart and shows there is much to be gained in a few sentences.