Monday, June 15, 2015

June 2015 "Quick Lit": In which I review two memoirs, and then I rant

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for "Quick Lit," in which we share what we've been reading and provide short reviews.  I'm going to describe two memoirs I read this month -- and then I'm going to indulge in a little rant about a novel I abandoned in the early going.



What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love by Carole Radziwill.  In the mid-90's, the author, a journalist from a lower-class background, met Anthony Radziwill, a prince who was also a nephew of Jacqueline Kennedy.  Anthony's closest friend was his cousin John Kennedy Jr., and Carole became very close to John's wife Carolyn. At age 35, shortly before his marriage to Carole, Anthony developed terminal cancer; he lived only five more years. The book chronicles the couple's relationship and their journey through the cancer diagnosis and treatments, as well as the tragedy of the July 1999 plane crash that killed John Kennedy Jr., his wife, and her sister only three weeks before Anthony's death. This combination of circumstances is sad enough, but in some ways, what is even more poignant is how Carole and Anthony could never really speak openly about his illness or prepare together for his death. A difficult book, but excellent; I'd recommend it.

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Rumours of Glory by Bruce Cockburn.  This memoir by the Canadian singer-songwriter and activist (who is now 70) covers, in great detail, Cockburn's musical development, personal relationships, spiritual journey, social activism, and political thinking. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of how he has travelled to many different parts of the world, observing various conflicts and atrocities, and how his songwriting has borne witness to what he's seen. Cockburn's spiritual identity has evolved from orthodox Christianity to a more loosely defined faith in which he characterizes Jesus as "portal to the cosmos" and "compassionate activist." I appreciated his openness and honesty about these explorations, yet there were times when his account rang false for me. For instance, he talks at length of his affair with a married woman, whom he grandiosely calls "Madame X," saying confidently that God brought them together so that Cockburn could experience a deep, fully abandoned love. Of course, whether God orchestrates extramarital affairs so that aging lone wolves can have a soul-mate connection without actual commitment or self-sacrifice is open to debate. Cockburn talks a lot about love, but I wonder how he would put that into practice if he were faced with a sick or dying spouse or a disabled child -- or even what he would have done if "Madame X" had decided to get a divorce and asked him for a long-term commitment.  Hmm ... I can't help but think of the lyrics from a song by another Canadian icon, Gordon Lightfoot:  "I can't lay the promise down that I'll always be around when you need me ... I'm not saying I'll be true, but I'll try."

That aside, though, this book is a great exploration of Cockburn's career and personal development. I could imagine him saying the words on the page; that's a sign of a memoir that has captured the person's voice. And I liked how many of his songs are quoted in full, accompanied by  explanations of how and why they were written. This book gave me a fresh admiration for his skill as a poet and visionary. It's a must-read for any Bruce Cockburn fan.

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And now for my rant.

 
Having heard good things about Ingrid Hill's novel Ursula, Under, I eagerly requested it from the library.  But I don't know:  maybe it's the fact that I'm in both a writers' group and a book club and am therefore way too picky, or maybe as I get older I feel less compelled to continue reading a book I'm not enjoying.  This novel is about a little girl, Ursula, who falls down a mine shaft; after this event, which occurs in the early pages, the book takes a "breathtaking leap back in time" (as the book jacket puts it) to portray her ancestors in China, Sweden, etc.  This sounds ... well ... okay so far, although I'm not always a huge fan of sweeps-us-across-the-centuries novels.  But frankly, at nearly 500 pages, I expect it to be really good at the beginning, because I'm not going to commit if I'm not immediately enthralled -- or at least impressed.

I wasn't -- and that's putting it mildly. Here's a paragraph from the first chapter. Ursula is annoyed because her dad, Justin, is focused on a hockey game being shown at a hotel where her family is staying: 

"Out through the glass door of the lobby, in the twilight, the surface of the lake sparkles. Ursula stands waving her packet of cookies with a defeated look but also with flashes of a tiny anger. She makes an exasperated face at the desk attendant, as if to say, Men. The attendant laughs heartily. The New Jersey Devils are playing the Anaheim Ducks, and the Devils are on their way to shutting out the Ducks."

Paragraphs have a purpose: to keep related sentences together. These sentences are not related. The sparkling lake is not what is annoying Ursula; in fact, she is not looking at the lake at all, so who, exactly, is looking at it?  Well ... I guess we're supposed to be ... except we're also supposed to be watching Ursula.  And the attendant's laughter at Ursula's expression has nothing to do with what teams are playing in the hockey game. Also, why does that last sentence have to name the teams twice? Why not just "The attendant laughs heartily, then turns back to the screen, where the New Jersey Devils are on their way to shutting out the Anaheim Ducks"?  

(Oh, and how can the surface of the lake sparkle "out through the glass door"? You're killing me here!)

A page later we read this:  "The Devils win, three-aught. Annie [Ursula's mom] comes down from the elevator, using her cane, looking for them." Leaving aside the archaic "aught" (three-zero?  three-nothing?) ... I hate to break it to Annie, but the New Jersey Devils are on TV; they're not there in the lobby. Where was the editor, who should have said, "Uh, you mean 'looking for Ursula and Justin,' right"?

But it was this paragraph (in a chapter about Ursula's 3rd-century ancestor, an alchemist) that brought to mind the old saying by Dorothy Parker: "This is a novel that should not be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force."  Here the alchemist has just heard a sound outside and gets up to investigate:

"He walks in his soft shoes across the floor to the high window and climbs to a stool to peer out.  He listens to the schiff-schiff of his leather slipper soles as he traverses the smooth stone floor. What would Zhou, his servant, be doing outdoors at this time of night? Zhou should have been asleep long ago, early riser that he is. Qin Lao steps up onto the stool and peers out the small opening."

In the first sentence, he walks across the floor and climbs on a stool (at least that's what I assume she means by "climbs to a stool") to peer out.  In the second sentence, after he has already walked across the floor, he listens to the sound his slippers (or his shoes, we're not sure which) make as he walks across the floor. In the fifth sentence, after already climbing up on the stool to peer out, he steps up onto the stool and peers out.  These are basic rookie mistakes, the kind of thing our writing group picks up on regularly in our members' rough drafts.  Again, an editor should have insisted that this paragraph be revised -- maybe this way:

"He walks across the smooth stone floor, listening to the schiff-schiff of his soft leather slippers, and climbs onto a stool to peer out the high window. What would Zhou, his servant, be doing outdoors at this time of night? Zhou should have been asleep long ago, early riser that he is."

But even then, why is Qin Lao listening to the sound of his slippers? He's heard something outside and wants to find out what it is. Unless he is trying to remain unheard himself, a familiar sound like his slippers on the floor is not going to capture his attention -- and certainly need not capture ours -- when he is seeking the source of some other noise. If the author is going to recount (twice!) every detail, big or small, for no real narrative purpose, it's no wonder this novel is so huge. 

I couldn't decide if Hill was trying much too hard, or not trying hard enough; either way, Ursula, Under wasn't for me. I know a lot of people liked it. But life is too short to read a 500-page rough draft (unless I'm getting paid) -- no matter how many breathtaking leaps back in time it takes.




14 comments:

  1. I absolutely love your rant, Jeannie! Well done! (And I'm envious of your writing group.) I too have been looking forward to reading U,U. Thank you for the honest warning!

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    1. Hi Dawn - As you well know, one person can love a book and another hate it! So I'm not saying don't give UU a try; I'm just giving my take on its style. Looking forward to seeing what you've been reading too...

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  2. Ha, I enjoyed your rant, too, especially the careful look at the poorly written passages. Can't say I'm a fan of books written in the present tense, anyways, unless it really serves a purpose (like Room, by Emma Donoghue, where the use of the present tense drastically increases the tension of the novel).

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    1. Yes, the present-tense bit bugged me as well, esp when it was used for a 21st-century plot line AND a 3rd-century one (and presumably all the others, though I didn't read those, did I?.....) I think you're right, it can work great for certain effects but not just as the default tense.

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  3. Really interesting commentary on the Bruce Cockburn book! :-) And I think I won't be reading Ursula, Under!

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    1. Well, don't take my word for it .... what am I saying? Take my word for it! :-D

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  4. "Of course, whether God orchestrates extramarital affairs so that aging lone wolves can have a soul-mate connection without actual commitment or self-sacrifice is open to debate."

    Nicely put! I enjoyed your in-depth reviews and am also curious about your writing group! I'm too chicken to put one together. (bock, bock!)

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    1. Thanks, Anne. Our writers' group started about 6 years ago. A friend and I went to a talk given by a local writer; my friend met up with someone she knew, and so did I. The 4 of us started talking and decided to form a group. We don't have all the same members anymore but at the moment there are 4 regular attenders; we meet every 2nd Monday night for 2 hours. We bring up to 3 pages of something we've been writing (could be short story, novel, poetry) and give each other feedback; if there's time we also do a writing exercise (take a prompt and write for 10 mins about it). It's great to have the encouragement and constructive criticism, and it's definitely a motivator to get writing done.

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  5. Those paragraphs you excerpted are painful to read, Jeannie. (Seriously, if someone thought that was publishable, I should have agents and editors knocking down the doors of my blog to get to represent me.) Your suggested edits/corrections seem like the kind of thing any self-respecting editor would have taken care of before the galley proofs were ever run.

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    1. Thanks, Tim. I think dense, detailed writing can be beautiful and really serve a story -- but here the writing was a stumbling block. Give me a good story with interesting characters, told in straightforward prose, any day.

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  6. I read your rant just before starting a new book. Lo and behold, it has the very same problem you were complaining about. Repeatedly. It's making me go a little cross-eyed, which is a shame, because the content of the book is great. Hopefully lack of editing isn't a new trend :/

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    1. I'd love to know what book you mean -- but I'm almost afraid to ask! .... Your last point does make me wonder whether, in the competitive publishing world, really careful editing is becoming a thing of the past because there just isn't time and money to do it well? Anyway, thanks for coming by and commenting, Rachel.

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  7. I think from your "rant" that you would make a good editor!

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    1. Thanks, Ellie! I don't know the last time I've been so irritated with a book.

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