September 27, 2008

Guest Post: On Writing

Guest post! Everyone, meet Anna. Anna, meet everyone. You can read Anna's regular thoughts on reading, writing, and knitting on her blog, Diary of an Eccentric.

I’ve been a writer since I learned to string a few words together to form a sentence. I remember clearly that the first poem I wrote was about cats, and I proudly gave it to my fifth grade teacher on a drawing I made as a gift to her. (I still remember the poem, though it’s not written down anywhere. I won’t repeat it here, but trust me, it’s embarrassing!) A couple of decades later, I’m still writing.

I’ve always been shy when it comes to sharing my poetry, and I’m very secretive when it comes to the novel I’ve been writing off and on for the past few years. Even my husband is left out of the loop, and a close friend who edits for me here and there is the only one who knows the story. I feel as though talking about my characters (who are very real to me) and the plot will make the magic disappear (or make it sound like a lost cause and prevent me from finishing). I haven’t published any of my poems, partly because I think most of them need a lot of work and partly because they’re like my children and I’m not ready to pack them up and send them off into the real world. But in the past year or so, I’ve come to realize that fear has a lot to do with my hesitation.

It might be fear of rejection. Obviously, no one wants to receive rejection slips, but that’s part of a writer’s life—there’s no getting around it. (I read somewhere that even James Patterson and J.K. Rowling had trouble finding someone to take a chance on their first books, and look where they are today.) But I think it’s more than that.

Writing, to me, is baring my soul on paper (or the computer screen). It’s a very intimate process. I get inside the minds, bodies, and souls of these people I’ve created and pour their lives out onto the page. Sometimes I feel as though I know them better than I know myself. I don’t know about you, but standing naked before a group of strangers doesn’t sound appealing. But that’s what you do as a writer.

This fear is what prompted me to create a blog. I needed to set aside time for writing—writing about anything, just so I’d be writing. The fear had taken hold of me, and for a long time, I wasn’t writing at all. And to be honest with you and myself, I was miserable. When I’m not writing, my nose is in a book, so I figured blogging about what I read made a lot of sense. You have to write what you know, and I know that when I reach the final page in a book, the thoughts and feelings inside my head are close to overflowing. It doesn’t matter if I spend one day or one month reading the book, I’ve forged a bond with the characters, and I know it’s a good book if I have a hard time letting go. Sometimes my book reviews are a farewell to the “friends” I made while reading or a way to express the hurt or frustration I feel when things don’t turn out the way I want. Regardless, I’m writing and that was my goal all along.

Blogging is a baby step for me. There’s still some fear involved. What if the author takes what I’ve said the wrong way? What if I’ve offended someone? What if no one cares what I have to say? But then I tell myself it doesn’t matter. If I can look back and be happy with what I’ve written, that’s what matters. And if I get the creative juices flowing by jotting down my feelings about what I’ve read and allow them to jump into the notebook where my precious characters reside, that’s even better.

Diary of an Eccentric is the home of my book reviews, discussions about writing and motherhood, and my knitting projects (when I actually have time for another hobby). I hope you will pop in to express your opinions about the books I’ve read, offer some reading recommendations, or simply say hello. I’d love to hear what you have to say!

September 24, 2008

Wednesday Quickies

Review: Genuine Men, by Nancy Bruno.



Genuine Men is a photo-essay collection about -- can you guess? -- men. While I'm not personally sure what makes a man (or a woman, for that matter) "genuine" or not, in terms of degrees of manhood, Nancy Bruno has certainly presented a wide range of men from which to choose. The format is quite simple: each subject is introduced in a brief vignette, basically a biographical snapshot, and is accompanied by three or four black-and-white pictures. The men seem to all be American, but otherwise represent a variety of races, religions, ages, abilities, and the like. It's an interesting project and might make a good gift for young boys in particular.

The book itself could have been put together better, in terms of its construction. I think that the photos would have been much more effective/interesting if they were glossy instead of matte, and the raised print on the jacket is chipping or rubbing off or something -- letters that were once silver and now half-silver, half-black. And sometimes the line in the middle of the page goes right through the subjects' faces. But it's quite good otherwise.

Review: Templeton Turtle Goes Exploring, by Ron Pridmore (Illustrated by Michele-lee Phelan).



Apparently this book is about teaching children the importance of community. You know, as in
When Templeton Turtle hatches from his egg, he can't wait to start exploring on his own and making new friends. But when tiny Templeton faces trouble, he learns that no matter what their differences, the animals in the pond take care of one another.

In all honesty, this didn't really come across when I read it. The story itself seemed kinda ... pointless. Templeton says "Oh well" a lot and gets scared by some cows, who are at the pond for reasons unknown.

The book is marked as ages 4-8, but I'd definitely mark that down. It's not very interesting. But the illustrations, at least, are very lovely.

Review: Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood.



I've been maintaining for years that this book is my favourite of all of Atwood's work, although I would, for most of those years, have been quite hard-pressed to explain why. But now I've read it again, after a gap of about six or seven years, and I can say: it is my favourite because it is brilliant and ambiguous and deliciously written, all the things that Atwood novels usually are, only more so.

Lunatics! Murder! Illicit love! Susannah Moodie quotations! The nineteenth century! Seriously, folks, this is one heckuva book. You should go read it.

My second-hand copy also came with a lovely inscription:
November 1996

Kim

Hoping you enjoy Margaret Atwood's new book. Some relaxing reading after all your hard work.

Happy Thanksgiving

Love, Mom & Dad xxoo

Kim, whoever you are! I hope that you enjoyed this book as well -- although maybe you didn't, since I have it now. Or perhaps it was at the shop because you're dead. Huh, awkward.

September 20, 2008

Getting Rich Quick (a follow-up)

After much stomping around and desk-clearing, I've finally tracked down all of my receipts in order to see exactly how much I've spent on textbooks this year. There's a lot to keep track of; since writing my initial post, I visited three more bookstores as well as the original ones another two or three times.

I'm going to give all of the stores initials so that we can  keep track:

  • BMBR -- Campus store. Loathe.

  • BMV -- Discounted & used books. Usually my first choice.

  • DB -- Local used books. Self-proclaimed "world's messiest bookstore" for 7th year running.

  • TBE -- Right next door to DB. Neurotically neat and a bit pricier; a mix of used and new texts.

  • PDB -- The least local of the three local places; lots of CDs as well as books.

Here's the damage, starting with the most un-loved BMBR:

  1. Three Late Medieal Morality Plays, ed. G. A. Lester. $18

  2. What Maisie Knew, by Henry James. $16

  3. Statements, by Athol Fugard. $15

  4. Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih. $30

  5. Death and the King's Horseman, by Wole Soyinka. $17

  6. The Palm-wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola. $19

  7. Anna of the Five Towns, by Arnold Bennett. $20

  8. Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga. $24

Total: $159
Average price: $20

BMV:

  1. Arrow of God, by Chinua Achebe. $7

  2. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner. $8

Total: $15
Average price: $7.50

PDB:

  1. Waiting for the Barbarians, by J. M. Coetzee. $5

  2. Midaq Alley, The Thief and the Dogs, and Miramar, by Nagib Mahfouz. $11

Total: $16
Average price: $8

DB:

  1. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.

  2. Ulysses, by James Joyce.

  3. Othello, by William Shakespeare.

  4. Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie.

Total: $20 (books were not individually priced)
Average price: $5

TBE:

  1. Under Western Eyes, by Joseph Conrad. $7

  2. The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai. $9

Total: $16
Average price: $8

Now, in all of these calculations I have rounded to the nearest dollar (usually rounding up from .95 or .99) and I have left out books purchased for pleasure rather than school... of which there have been a goodly number as well. Probably I'd have to add about another $40 or $50 to these numbers. (Because when you're spending $80 or $100 or $120 already, what's another book or three?). Oh, plus another $70 for two french textbooks in a private sale. I forgot about those. So let's call it $350 on books this month, all told.

But you can see the difference, can't you? At the used bookstores, the average price per book is just over $7. At the campus store, the average price per book is a solid $20. That adds up really, really fast. It's an incredible racket.

The most outrageous was Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North. It's 169 pages long, has a large and kinda crummy print, and it cost $30. That's 18 cents per page (yes... I actually bothered to figure this out). By contrast, a typical new mass-market paperback should cost something like $0.03/page (assuming a $12 cost and 400 pages, which is typical for a thickish mystery or suchlike). So ridiculous.

In conclusion, blah blah blah I hate the campus bookstores.

You other students -- how has this season been for your pocketbooks thus far?

September 17, 2008

Review: The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent



The first thing I noticed about The Heretic's Daughter when I opened the package it came in was that I had been sent a large-print edition. Seriously, the print is huge -- I just measured some capital letters and they're fully 4 mm tall. And it was a bit strange to be reading print that big, but boy, did it make me feel like a speedy reader! With only 27 lines per page I at least felt like I was turning to the next one every twenty seconds. It was intense.

Not that any of you care about how big the type was. Get to the content!, I hear you cry.

Here's the jacket blurb:
In 1752 Sarah Carrier Chapman, confined to her home and weak with infirmity, writes a letter to her granddaughter, revealing the secret she has guarded closely for six decades. It is a haunting account of the horrors that enveloped a New England town called Salem, and compelled Sarah, then just a young girl, to make a decision that would change her life forever.

A direct descendant of Martha Carrier, Kathleen Kent is also a writer of uncommon gifts, bringing to life Puritan New England in its darkest hour as well as a family united by their faith in the truth and their love for one another. Harrowing, moving, and utterly unforgettable, The Heretic's Daughter marks the debut of a remarkable new storyteller.

So. The Heretic's Daughter. To clarify the immediately above, Sarah Carrier Chapman is the daughter of Martha Carrier, from whom Kathleen Kent is descended. The blurb doesn't really make that clear -- but never fear, the text does!

This is a story told in a frame narrative -- the entire thing is couched in a letter to Sarah Carrier's granddaughter. That only seems to come into play in the first chapter, though; the rest of the tale is told diary-style and if memory serves me correctly, the granddaughter is never mentioned again. This is actually good for the story, as it lends the narrative a certain immediacy which might otherwise be lacking. Sarah is telling the story of her life when she's an old woman, but adopts a child's tone; it reads like everything is happening right then. This is good.

The heretic of the title, if you haven't guessed, is Martha Carrier, Sarah's mother. After the Carriers move to a new town (unfortunately bringing smallpox with them) conflict with other villagers and inter-family tensions -- plus the general hysteria of the witch trials -- lead to Martha Carrier being denounced, tried, and eventually hung as a witch. Sarah herself is also imprisoned over the course of her mother's incarceration, along with her aunt, cousin, and several brothers. Let me tell you, I can't think of anywhere worse to spend a couple of months than in a seventeenth-century prison.

Although Sarah is the narrator and it is her experiences that are recorded, the true focus of the novel is on her mother, Martha. Denounced as a witch, she refused to capitulate to the demands of the magistrates; her denial of witchdom is what landed her children in jail. Martha is a woman of tremendous courage and integrity -- for which she is killed (and, later, exonerated). She literally gives up her life to save her children:
She spoke with such intensity that I blinked against her breath. "You know where I go tomorrow?" I nodded. "Do you know why?" I nodded again, but she said, "Say it, then." I opened my mouth and said in a small voice, "Because they say you are a witch."

"And do you know why Mary and Margaret are arrested?" she asked. And I responded, "Because they are believed to be witches also."

And here she put her hands on my shoulders so that I could look nowhere but into her eyes and she said, "No. They are arrested to make Uncle confess and in the hopes that they will in turn cry out against others for practicing witchcraft. They will come for me tomorrow, but I will not confess and I will not cry out on anyone. Do you know what that means?"

[snip]

"When they cannot make me confess they will come to my family and it will not matter that you are a child. There are children in Salem Town jail even now. She saw the look in my eyes and knelt in front  of me, holding me tight in her arms.

"If they come for you, you must tell them anything they want to hear to save yourself. And you must tell Richard and Andrew and Tom to do the same." (pp. 253-4).

Yeah, things get kind of intense around Salem. And although the story is in many effects a tragedy, there are high notes. Martha Carrier's integrity and dedication to the truth is admirable. The tenderness between Sarah's parents is notable, especially toward the end of the book (and let it be known: the father also has secrets! Duhn duhn duhn!). I thought that The Heretic's Daughter was a very enjoyable read and will be looking for more from Kathleen Kent.

Interview with Kathleen Kent

I had the chance to interview Kathleen Kent, the author of The Heretic's Daughter.

Tell us a little about yourself:

I grew up in Texas, attending the University of TX at Austin before moving to New York. I worked for over twenty years in Manhattan, first for the Commodity Exchange and then as a defense contractor for the U.S. Dept. of Defense, traveling extensively through Belarus and Kazakhstan. I became a writer only after moving back to Texas with my family in 2000.

You're actually descended from Martha Carrier, one of your characters. Did you grow up knowing about her, or was her life an adult discovery for you? What made you want to write about her?

I grew up listening to the stories of Martha Carrier and her family from my mother and grandmother and so, from the time I was a child, I had a great sense of pride in her courage. My grandmother used to stress that Martha was in fact not a witch, merely a "ferocious woman." Once I was a teenager and could verify the history of the Carrier family and their involvement in the Salem witch trials, I recorded as many of the facts of the trials as I could, along with the family legends. I always had the thought that someday I would write a novel-length book about their lives; it just took me a while to get to the place where I had the time and the resources to devote to such an ambitious project.

I imagine that writing historical fiction is a bit like walking a tightrope. How did you find a balance between historical accuracy and artistic license?

This question of balance was something that I constantly asked myself during the five years I researched and wrote The Heretic's Daughter. I knew from the beginning it would be a work of fiction, but historical fiction works best when it is anchored, as much as possible, with authentic dates, places and people. I read extensively about the Salem witch trials, and the differing theories offered to explain the hysteria, as well as studying contemporary letters and sermons from well-known theologians of the time to capture the rhythm and cadence of the language. I traveled to Massachusetts and Connecticut visiting homesteads and buildings from Colonial 17th century, while spending time with local historians. That said, I did make some changes for dramatic purposes. For example, the real Sarah Carrier was examined and imprisoned when she was six years old, but I felt a child that young would not have the presence of mind to tell a compelling eye-witness account of the events unfolding around her. So the fictional Sarah is nine when her story as a child begins.

What was the writing process like for The Heretic's Daughter? What were your biggest challenges and triumphs?

Because I had never before attempted a novel-length work of fiction, I spent much of the time---perhaps an entire year---just researching and taking notes. Because of my family life, distraction from writing, pleasurable or otherwise, became my biggest obstacle. I set up a rigid time schedule for writing, from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm, and I left the ultimate finish date open ended. Some days there was no writing, only study and note taking. And then there were the days when I stared for hours at a blank computer screen wondering if I would ever get to "the end." I went through four major drafts, being as ruthlessly critical as I could, before I began sending it out to agents. I think the biggest sacrifice was limiting my access to book stores (except for relevant research material) which have always been one of my greatest joys. I was afraid that seeing all of the published books, by all of those amazing authors, would distract and defeat me before I had even finished the first draft.

Your writing reminds me of that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself a descendent of those involved in the Salem witch trials. His fiction often attempts to vindicate those involved in the trials. Do you see yourself in the same role?

Nathaniel Hawthorne was a favorite of mine growing up, so I think there was a definite influence in some of the darker aspects of the social injustice in The Heretic's Daughter. The repetitive theme in most of my favorite books, like The Quincunx and Instance of the Fingerpost, is that a great wrong has been done to the main characters, forcing them to act in courageous and sometimes socially contrary ways.

What's on your nightstand right now?

I have just finished, back to back, two non-fiction books that, at first glance, look to be entirely different. But The Last Witch of Langenburg by Prof. Thomas Robisheaux and The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston are both about witch hunts (the first 17th century German, the second 20th century Italian) and the disastrous results from governments ruled by superstition and intolerance.

Are you working on any other writing projects at the moment?

I am currently working on my second novel; a prequel to The Heretic's Daughter which explores more fully the life of Thomas Carrier who was over seven feet tall and lived to be 109 (two coffins had to be fitted together to bury him). According to family legends, he fought for Cromwell during the English civil wars and was involved in the execution of King Charles I of England.

What are some good resources for those who'd like to know more about the Salem trials?

A wonderful historical study of the Salem witch hysteria is Mary Beth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare. Reading Salem Possessed by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissembaum is also very interesting and enlightening.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell us?

I couldn’t have completed this first novel without the help and support of my family. I’m also profoundly grateful for the support from the publishers, Little Brown. I pinch myself every day!

September 9, 2008

How to Get Rich Quick

I figure it must go something like this:

  1. Open a bookstore on campus.

  2. Wait until September.

  3. Get rich.

Seriously -- textbooks are a huge racket. Especially if you go to the campus bookstores (doom! doom!)

Allow me a practical demonstration. Yesterday I went to two bookstores. The first: a used/bargain bookstore within walking distance of campus. Here's what I bought:

  • A Jest of God, by Margaret Laurence (mass market paperback, $2.99)

  • A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (mass market paperback, $0.50)

  • Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood (hardcover, $8.99)

  • Catch-22, by Joseph Heller (trade paperback, $6.99)

  • Four Major Plays, by Henrick Ibsen (mass market paperback, $0.50)

  • Jacob Two-Two's First Spy Case, by Mordecai Richler (paperback, $1.00)

  • Ten Days' Wonder, by Ellery Queen (pulp paperback, $3.00)

  • The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, by Beatrix Potter (hardcover, $3.99)

  • The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner (trade paperback, $7.99)

  • Stones, by Timothy Findley (mass market paperback, $0.50)

  • Total damage (w/o tax): $36.45

  • Average price: $3.65

Then, I had to go to the actual bookstore where my prof had ordered our books, having only been able to find a few at the cheap place. Here's what I got there:

  • Anna of the Five Towns, by Arnold Bennett (trade paperback, $20.00)

  • In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed, by Carl Honoré (trade paperback, $22.00)

  • Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie (trade paperback, $22.00)

  • Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf (trade paperback, $14.95)

  • Nervous Conditions, by Tsitsi Dangarembga (trade paperback, $23.95)

  • The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai (trade paperback, $18.00)

  • Under Western Eyes, by Joseph Conrad (trade paperback, $11.95)

  • What Maisie Knew, by Henry James (trade paperback, $16.00)

  • Total damage (w/o tax): 148.85

  • Average price: $18.60

Is that not completely ridiculous? $150 for eight books? First there is the indignity of having to shop there (or at least being expected to do so -- sometimes things are easier to find other places, but not always) and then there is the unavilability of anything but "trade" paperbacks. And if those aren't just about the biggest book industry scam out there, I don't know what is. It's absurd!

Yesterday the guy checking out ahead of me at the second store asked if they had any sort of student discount. The cashier just looked at him like "Are you stupid?".

How do you get around prices like these?

September 5, 2008

August Book Round-Up

I find these monthly book summaries simultaneously stimulating and dreadful. Stimulating because I like to see how many books I've read, and to look at how the month was shaped as a whole, at least as far as literature is concerned. I find them dreadful because the task falls to me of not only remembering what I've read throughout the month, but finding something to say about each book. Let me tell you, for some months that's a lot harder to do than for others.

But August, on the whole, was plentifully filled with fascinating books. I read three or four non-fiction titles, which I think slowed me down in terms of number of books read -- novels just seem to go so much faster -- but I enjoyed all of them, even if they're outside of my usual scope.

Here's the breakdown:

*The Wars, by Timothy Findley. I read this for two book challenges: The Book Awards Challenge (II) and the 2nd Canadian Books Challenge (eh?). I don't understand why it took me this long to read this book. The Wars is intense. And fantastic. Go read it.

*Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro. Hot dang, I actually can't remember anything about this book. I guess it wasn't memorable? I think I enjoyed it at the time, though.

*First Daughter, by Eric van Lustbader. I give this a meh, and otherwise will let my full review do the talking.

My Man Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse. What-ho, Jeeves! Ballyhoo! Eggs & b.!

Say Cheesy, by Darby Conley. This was one of the several comic collections I read over the course of August, mostly as relief from and contrast to the giant non-fiction tomes I was also reading. I particularly enjoy Get Fuzzy books as they are so wonderfully bent.

*It Starts with You!, by Julia J. Austin. It starts with you! Unless you like good books!

*The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. Boy howdy, was this ever a fascinating read. I have this thing for neuroscience, you see, and sometimes when I get to read such a smart, sciency, brainy book... well, it just leaves me swooning.

*When We were Romans, by Matthew Kneale. This. Book. Is. So. Good.

Blueprint for Disaster, by Darby Conley. Another Get Fuzzy collection! I heart.

Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons, by Bill Watterson. Of course, even Get Fuzzy and Darby Conley cannot compare to Bill Watterson's genius with Calvin and Hobbes.

*The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. This was an exceedingly interesting book, although it took me a very long time to get through it. It has mushroom hunting! And corn sex! And all sorts of foody facts that are making me seriously re-evaluate what (and how) I eat. Pollan's writing is very good -- but it is still a hard book to read because of the contents. It really made me think, and I appreciate that... but at the same time, I'm now definitely caught in the dilemma that the title cites.

Yukon Ho!, by Bill Watterson. Yum tum tiddle pum, Calvin and Hobbes. Here's a fun thing: a list of their names in translation. Tommy og Tigern! Kázmér és Huba! Kalfin i Gopsya! karubin to hobbusu! Will the fun never end?

There's Treasure Everywhere, by Bill Watterson. Even more Calvin and Hobbes! My cup runneth over. I especially enjoyed this collection because it had been a few years since I'd read it -- long enough for things to be fresh again.

*Castaway Kid, by R. B. Mitchell. As with some romance novels, the plot has been helpfully inserted into the title.

*The Road Past Altamont, by Gabrielle Roy. As previously mentioned, nothing happens in this book. But it's still lovely.

Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry. Ah, this book is still enjoyable & lovely. Digging for clams! Taming wild horses! It's all very exciting, you see.

*The Heretic's Daughter, by Kathleen Kent. An enjoyable read. Review forthcoming.

*Résistance, by Agnès Humbert. This memoir blew me out of the water. It was first published just after World War Two, in French, and this is the brand-new (and only) English translation. The story is one woman's account of the war, first living in occupied Paris, and of joining the Résistance before being caught and spending time first in a French jail, and then in a German work camp. It's journal-style and all in the present-tense, and so felt very immediate. This is definitely one to check out!

Also in August I (finally) finished the 100+ Books Challenge, after six months of reading. I actually was only two books short in July -- which, I think, is patently ridiculous -- and so I'm quite glad to be finally and officially finished my first challenge. Hoorap! Huzzard!

What did you read in August? Anything particularly horrible or amazing?

September 4, 2008

Review: Story of the Sand, by Mark B. Pickering

I have read, if my calculations are correct, 36.4% of this book -- and that's really enough for me.

Here's the back cover:
After spending months fighting in the sands of Iraq, Sampson Roy has returned to his home in Georgia a changed man. Gone is the patriotic optimist who went off to serve his country, and in his stead is a bitter, resentful pessimist.

Sampson is unable to cope with society, and the government could care less about his problems. His psychological damage from what he witnessed in the Middle East has ruined his marriage and left him a pariah to those he formerly loved. He retreats to the woods, drowning his demons in a bottle of liquor. But in the midst of his suffering, a ghost appears named David Tree, a dead soldier from the Iraqi conflict who has been unable to pass to the other side. David brings unexpected news: Sampson's wife is pregnant.

With a new burst of hope, Sampson cautiously leaves the woods. But his alcoholism and self-destructive nature brand him an outcast, and his wife refuses to reconcile. Deep in his heart, Sampson wants to raise his newborn child and return to the life he once had. Finding the courage to conquer his addiction may be too much, yet he has to try -- even if it ultimately destroys him. Haunting and powerful, Story of the Sand is a searing portrait of war's destruction of the individual soldier.

Okay, so what we have here is military ghost fiction. And even the spectral aspect isn't that interesting -- the ghost shows up and what does Sampson do? He initiates an inane argument over whether or not he's allowed to call the ghost by a nickname. This goes on for ages.

The story itself flits around from present to past to dream sequence at an alarming rate, and the result is confusing; there are still several passages about which I'm unsure. The writing itself, too, often descends into incoherency. Take the following example, from page 27:
Sandals ran before him before he completely blacked out. Sampson wanted to grab an ankle. He wanted it to feel his pain. bloody tendons were in his grip, in his mind, screaming. The b****** who did this a crippled f*** burst satisfaction inside his fading head.

Can anyone parse that last sentence? It might just be me, but I've read it a half-dozen times and still have no idea what the author was trying to say.

Other passages are equally problematic. Take the following sentences:
His ankle twisted badly, painfully. It looked like putty and dangled as he tried to walk.

It must be painful if you're ever in a position where your ankle dangles. Also painful: this prose. It's very disjointed, the dialogue is boring, and many of the metaphors make no sense. I kept waiting for the story to grab me and take me past the clunky writing, but after nearly eighty pages I figured that if it hadn't already, it probably never would.

The story of soldiers returning home from the war in Iraq is an important one and needs to be told. Just not this way.

September 2, 2008

Review: Castaway Kid, by R. B. Mitchell

I quote:
Abandoned by his parents when he was just three years old, Rob Mitchell began his journey as one of the last "lifers" in an American orphanage. As Rob's loneliness and rage grew, his hope shrank. Would he ever find a real family or a place to call home?

Heartbreaking, heartwarming, and ultimately triumphant, this true story shows how, with faith, every person can leave the past behind and forget healthier, happier relationships.

Castaway Kid, by Rob Mitchell (or r. b. mitchell, as the cover styles him) is a competently written and interesting account of his own life, particularly focusing on his early years in an orphanage in Princeton, Illinois. Robbie eventually triumphs, as pointed out above, seeing his way through to a college education, a relationship with God, and a loving family of his own. It's a nice, redemptive story, more so because it's non-fiction (more on this below).

The writing is what I would call "conversational" -- half compelling, and half annoying. Mitchell is drawn at times to melodrama and florid metaphor, so:
And in that moment, the lion of my anger shredded the lamb of my sympathy. (p. 102)

I was clueless to the dangers of such a journey. And the only one who could take it was . . . me. (p. 177)

Trying to understand mother was like descending into a Salvador Dali painting shrouded in a Kafkaesque nightmare. (p. 193).

He does get points for "Kafkaesque," though. That is an excellent word.

What I actually found more interesting than the story itself is the lengths to which the author has gone to prove the verity of his tale. We all remember the fallout over A Million Little Pieces, when a book billed as a memoir was found out to be -- shock -- not entirely truthful in its account. Mitchell is conscious of this and addresses it directly; in the preface he offers the address of his website, a million little proofs,* where he's compiled evidence of his early life. There are PDF documents related to his stay in the orphanage, to his mother and father's mental states, and even his grandmother's journal. There are also recorded interviews with such adults who worked with him at the home, and were living and able to be reached for comment. I think it's fascinating both that he's been able to track down all these files and documents, and that he's made them freely available.

It makes me wonder how much of my life I'd be able to prove.

Castaway Kid is not stellar literature, but it is decently written and -- on the whole -- uplifting.

*Is the title coincidental, given the James Frey debacle? You tell me.