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.

The History of Byzantium Podcast

I just posted this on my Long Ago & Far Away blog:

I’ve been meaning to start a Resources page for this blog and will do so tonight.

But first, I want to highlight The History of Byzantium Podcast as it is a rich source of information as well as entertainment for treadmill duty or long drives up I95. I am partial to it since the eastern provinces of the old Roman Empire are my current focus, but I am convinced any lover of history will find them fascinating.

The blog posts include imagery, links to maps and to the related Facebook and Twitter sites. A few episodes are for sale – $5.00 – in order for the podcast’s creator, Robin Pierson, to help fund his otherwise voluntary effort. At this writing, the collection is up to 42 podcasts, the last of which covers AD 606-608.

Mr. Pierson began this project with the intent of continuing the efforts of Mike Duncan’s, The History of Rome podcasts – which started in July 2007 and ran to 179 episodes! I have linked to the first post/podcast, so you can start at the beginning.

Both of these sites have links to bibliographies and additional history podcasts.

Please let me know if you enjoy them or if you have other resources for our new Resource Page.

—- I will build a Resources Page for this site as well.

Happy listening!

Elizabeth Gilbert Discusses Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall in WSJ

Great discussion of Mantel’s Wolf Hall. (Read the book. It took me about 100 pages to make sense of the voice but it was worth it. I then blasted through Bring Up the Bodies. Great stuff.)

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303848104579308452275966122?mod=trending_now_5

Getting Your Work Done

I am fascinated by the methods other people use to get their creative work done in the midst of life’s demands. I am especially amazed at people who can produce art while enduring the worst of this life’s burdens – their own or loved one’s illness, broken relationships, war and death. Not trying to be morbid, I’m just amazed at how some people manage to carry on.

Even the daily routine of better days fills life to the edges with activity – all urgent and consuming.

Most artists/writers advocate getting up in the wee morning hours to get the writing/painting done and I have found it to be true for myself. Once the regular day begins there seems no way to disengage.

So, up early. And what else? Creatives establish little rituals. For me, it’s a humongous mug of PG Tips (that’s English tea) with half & half.

And goals. Many writers have daily word count goals. I have been participating in an online group of writers whose only connection is a commitment to write 250 words per day, every day. When you’ve done your words, you enter your daily total into an online Google document. People with the longest unbroken stretches and highest word counts get to be in the leader board. That’s it. No prizes. But, we cheer and spur each other on. It works wonders.

Last Spring I managed 53 days in a row. Then I went into research mode and then was consumed by my resurrected painting business.

That’s 250.

Whew. Made it for the day.

How do you do it? How do you make the time, energy and emotional space to do the creative work only you can do?

My Name Is Red

Here’s a prior post in my other blog –  Long Ago and Far Away:

My Name is Red

 

In a prior post I explained that I do not intend to write proper reviews of books. I also mentioned that for a book to receive five stars from me, it would have to be more than entertaining and well written. It must also stick with me past the final page. Some books are technically perfect but forgettable. Others are unforgettable but could do with another hard edit, or they have some niggling thing that prevents the perfect 10 in my eyes. And, as I explained, trying to review books as a beginning novelist just feels awkward.

I don’t generally read reviews either. When I choose a book (or film) I like to know as little as possible before I begin. I don’t even read back covers. Writers work incredibly hard to create a story that unfolds and reveals information in exactly the right way. I hate to miss that experience by knowing anything before the writer wants me to. Tell me the genre and the period and that you recommend it – let the writer do the rest.

However, I would like to use this blog to make observations about various books and invite dialog on certain aspects. Which brings me to these thoughts about My Name is Red.

My Name is Red appears on many historical fiction “must read” lists and is set in a time/place which is well off the beaten path. So it seemed a good candidate for a lover of long ago and far away tales. Also, although 16th century Istanbul is many hundreds of years and miles from my current period of study – for my interests, that’s really close!

This murder/mystery was written in Turkish by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. With all the accolades, I figured I’d better read this and was excited to find something so intriguing.

At the time I read it, I was working about 60 hours per week at a brutal day job. I think it took me four months of dozing off before bed to get through this book. At times it was only the need to finally learn the identity of the murderer, and my general reluctance to ever abandon a book, that kept me going. (Don’t worry, no spoilers here. After all of that, I can’t remember who the murderer turned out to be.)

Many aspects of the book appealed to me: as an artist, I loved that the story is set among a community of miniaturist painters; the structure, voice and non-western worldview is compelling; the characters are complex and therefore unsentimental in their portrayal. But I felt vast portions of the book were repetitive and going no where, slowly. I could have enjoyed more of this world, these characters, if it had been additional material rather than the feeling that I was going in circles.

By the time I was done with it, I was relieved. And finding out the answer to the whodunit was, meh.

But here’s additional support for why I won’t formally review this book or others. Sometimes it is only after time and distance that the true impact of a book is realized. I am now 5-6 months from finishing that slog but find the book is still with me. Something of it’s essence lingers. What is it and why? I’m not really sure. I think a large part of it is the believability of the characters. They were just fickle, inconsistent and imperfect enough to truly breathe.

One intellectual question persists – I wonder if I were capable of reading the work in the original language, would the word crafting have extraordinary merit? Is it more beautifully written in the original? Did I miss some important aspect of the work by reading a translation?

This question buzzed around my head while I read the book and resurfaced when I read the article in the last Historical Novel Review, “Translating a Genre” by Lucinda Byatt. Ms Byatt makes a great argument for more historical fiction to be translated into English (Hear! Hear!). She also notes the difficulty for publishers to be sure of their translator’s skills. I couldn’t possibly critique Erdag M. Guknar’s translation of My Name is Red, but I can’t help wondering if I’ve missed out on something in the writing?

This book is also steeped in historical references that are probably familiar to eastern readers but are well outside of my exposure. It was fun though, just today, while readingThe History of al-Tabari for my own research, to come across the historical account of Shirin and Husrev, who’s love story figures so prominently in My Name is Red. I felt like I’d run into an old acquaintance.

I get the feeling that My Name is Red opened my mind to things I have yet to realize. The more reason not to rattle off hasty book reviews using the grade-inflation-tainted star system.

Recommended.

I’d love to hear from others who have read My Name is Red and your reaction to it. Is it just me? How do you feel about official/starred book reviews?

http://longagoandfaraway.org/2013/10/08/my-name-is-red/

 

Light Reading: Hilary Mantel

Bedtime Stories

Bedtime Stories

 

I was so exhausted by Penman’s Plantagenets that I searched for something in my To Be Read Pile that would be light and fun. So, of course, I settled on Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

Really, I did. My other options were to start this or that series and I didn’t want to embark on another long-term commitment. Bring Up the Bodies was at hand, not nearly as massive as the three Penman tomes I’d finally completed and it is the 2nd in a trilogy I’d already started. So it took priority over starting something else.

The good news – I zipped through it in less than a week. It was strange reading more Henry stuff but this is No. 8, rather than No. 2. My brain wanted to merge them together for a while but I finally left the Plantagenets behind and caught up with the Tudors.

The first book in the series, Wolf Hall, started off as a difficult read. Mantel has chosen an unusual point of view – 3rd person present tense – all from the head of Thomas Cromwell. It took me about one hundred pages to get the POV and voice to sync up with my brain – sort of like trying to read Shakespeare after many years away from it. Once I found the right groove my only problem was the occasional confusing pronoun reference. Mantel’s writing is so immediate and nearly stream of conscious that it was easy to lose track of the “he” references in Wolf Hall.

Delving back into Thomas Cromwell’s head in Bring Up the Bodies was a synch. And I was thrilled to see that Mantel had found a device to solve the pronoun reference problem without tampering with her distinctive voice. In a given paragraph, if there is a risk of the “he” pronoun reference being unclear, she now writes, “he, Cromwell, blah, blah, blah”. Like the rest of the book, it is unusual but it works.

As to the story – Oh, my. Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is a disturbing enigma but how else do you explain the contradictions present in this singular human being? I flew through the book even already knowing the historical outcome.

Highly Recommended.

Recent Reading: Sharon Kay Penman

When Christ and His Saints Slept is on the Kindle

When Christ and His Saints Slept is on the Kindle

Since I am writing historical fiction, it follows that I would read as much as possible in the genre. I am really trying to catch up.

In order to be well-read in historical fiction, one must read Sharon Kay Penman. So, I think I spent most of 2013 making my way through her Plantagenet Series – When Christ and His Saints Slept, Time and Chance, and Devil’s Brood. These books are massive but took me even longer because I found myself avoiding them – especially Devil’s Brood. Don’t misunderstand me – Ms. Penman is brilliant. Her writing is dense with historical detail and her character’s are as real as you and I. But I found myself wanting to slap nearly every one of them. Page after page of family squabbles result in the burning and pillaging of the French and English countryside for decades, generations. I found myself aimlessly surfing the web or scrolling through Facebook again just to avoid these people. What’s more amazing is that I liked most of the characters – even as I wanted to spank them.

Penman’s Lionheart – the story of Richard – sits on my dresser, but he will have to wait. I need a breather from these spoiled brats.

It reminds me of trying to read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror while living in Indonesia. I got through about half of it and couldn’t take it anymore. In this narrative history of 14th century Europe, Tuchman repeatedly points out that the rulers wreaking havoc on ordinary folks’ lives were really just teenagers run amuk. I felt like I was watching the same nonsense in Indonesia at the time and so put the book down. Why torment myself?

I suppose that’s somewhat the point in both works: people don’t change. Given the opportunity, a world run by teenagers will pretty much look like medieval Europe.

Thank God for democracy. Let’s keep it that way.