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?

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Squeezing in Some Reading Time

This is a repost from my Long Ago & Far Away blog. (And pardon the weird formatting. Not sure why it’s happening, but I’ve no time to fiddle with it. I need to be writing my own novel just now.)

Wilber Smith’s River God and The Quest – Some Observations

In my efforts to expand my exposure to Long Ago & Far Away historical fiction, it was past time that I read some Wilbur Smith. His novels of ancient Egypt intrigued me so I picked up River God and ventured in – as always without reading the back cover, reviews, etc.

From the first page I knew that Smith was writing my kind of historical fiction: accent on adventure and mostly fictitious main characters allowing lots of room to play. I am observing that, the more locked to historical figures, the more difficult it is to craft a satisfying story. (Though the likes of Sharon Kay Penman and C. W. Gortner do it with aplomb). Call me low-brow but I like heroes and villains and adventure rooted in some other world than ours – historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. For historical fiction I want the context to be accurate but after that, I just want a good story.

So, River God: the most compelling aspect of this work is not so much the story as the voice of the main character. Our first-person hero, Taita, borders on the fantastical – no, is fantastical. He is a Renaissance Man in extreme: playwright, architect, administrator, military strategist, physician, mural painter, jeweler, hydraulic engineer, embalmer, musician – what have I missed? There are chariot battles, damsels in distress and adventures into sub-Saharan Africa. I know so little about the history or geography that, besides the epic exaggerations, I had to largely take Smith at his word on the basic facts. But it’s Taita’s voice that carries this book. His voice will stay with me when the story is forgotten.

Imagine my shock when I opened The Quest and found a third-person narrative, mostly in Taita’s point of view, but also from other characters and even much use of the omniscient. I had skipped two books in the series, so I knew there would be story I’d missed and I expected subtle changes in the author’s style but I grieved the loss of Taita’s voice for 100 pages before I finally let it go.

Also, by the time you reach The Quest, there has been a shift in genre from imaginative historical adventure to what is essentially a fantasy set in ancient Egypt/Africa. Taita is no longer simply skilled at everything. In the interim he has become a mage and a long-liver. Rather than the natural enemy of an invading force (River God) Taita is now pitted against a thousand year old witch.

I read fantasy so it should have been easy to make the transition, but it took me about as long to let the historicity go as it did to relinquish Taita’s voice. I do not want to be the one to pigeon-hole writers into strict genre distinctions but I really struggled with it. I like historical characters to take on as much of their own worldview as I can possibly comprehend, and the people of ancient Egypt would understand the world very differently from me, but that’s not what The Quest is. The Quest is fantasy – best to make that mental switch in your head before you start page one.

It would be interesting to read the interim books and observe when and how Smith makes this transition. I suspect it is gradual and would not have shocked me so if I had read the progression as written. I’d love to hear from folks who have read all four to learn if this is the case or if The Quest was a leap in style and or genre.

And, a warning about The Quest: this story is sexually visceral. For the most part, the sexuality is rooted in the themes of power, identity and transformation that run through both books, but there were bits that seemed gratuitous.

River God: Recommended – here is it’s review page on GoodReads (interesting that the reviews are mostly divided between love it/hate it. Few in between.)

The Quest: Recommended with caution – here’s it’s review page on GoodReads (also very divided opinions). And one from the Historical Novel Society.

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.

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

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.