Book Sixteen: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I swear, I did not stop my 100 novels project. I just had a few distractions along the way, like a kitchen reno and a baby and stuff. As a result, I stopped reading and writing, and now here I am with some rare peace and quiet in the house, no conference calls to fill it up, and the urge to jot down a few thoughts. So why not about a book I read a while ago?

Let me start by saying I cannot actually remember the title of this book unless it’s written down somewhere. When people asked me what I was reading, I’d say, “that Guernsey Potato Peel book.” The entire title did not trip off my tongue the way I wanted it to.

I’d been hesitant to read it because I didn’t think I’d like it. And I was half right. I didn’t like the ending, which I’m not going to spoiler here. Otherwise I thought it was a sweet story with some moderately dark undertones – the kind of thing you don’t run across that often anymore now that we’re all living The Age of the Antihero through Showtime and HBO.

When I was a kid my mom had a great collection of Miss Read books. I used to devour them. There was something really lovely and mellow about those books to ten-year-old me. They wrote about people who knew and liked each other, who ate hot buttered toast and drank milky tea and looked out for their neighbours. This book was a lot like that, in that Julia finds herself in an idyllic community full of quirky characters. And really, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, not one thing.  We probably need more of it and fewer stories about people who cook meth or fight to the death on TV or chop up pedophiles when the justice system fails.

The problem I had with this book, and it’s minor in some ways, is that the ending felt too neat and easy. Everything tied together so nicely, and perhaps quickly. I could see it coming, but maybe I needed a few more hurdles in the main character’s path before everything came to its natural conclusion. So I guess the story felt incomplete, in a way, when I knew it could have been rounded out without compromising the lovely sweetness that enveloped the book.

And maybe they could have eaten more hot buttered toast.

Books Thirteen, Fourteen and Fifteen: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay

Okay, whoa.

I picked up The Hunger Games because I kept hearing how fantastic it was, both from adults and (second-hand) from my spouse’s grade six students. And while I don’t normally go for young adult fiction anymore (and mostly didn’t even as a young adult) I found by about page five that I couldn’t put this book down.

So then I figured, well, if you’re going to read a book so compulsively, you’d better figure out what it is that’s making you do it.

It came as no surprise to me to read that Suzanne Collins wrote for television before she became a novelist. The Hunger Games is perfectly plotted – it follows the three-act format so often touted in how-tos for screenwriting (and now for novel-writing, too). There’s nothing extraneous here. We meet Katniss Everdeen and her family on the day of the reaping, we’re introduced to Gale Hawthorne and see how he and Katniss defy the laws of the Capitol – by hunting – to save their families. And then boom, we’re faced with Katniss’ first big choice, when she steps up to take her sister’s place in the Games.

After that, all bets are off. You just have to let the plot take you where it will, and where it takes you is a pretty wild ride (from YA standards, certainly).

Of course, once I finished the first book I had to run out and buy books two and three. I found them both at the supermarket, beside an empty space for the first instalment. I snapped them up and have promised to donate them to Wildwood Elementary’s grade six class, for whom apparently two copies of everything is not enough.

I devoured the second book just as quickly as the first. Same reason – great plotting, plenty of tense moments. Bloodshed. Good doses of Peeta and Haymitch, some nice tension with Gale. I finished the last page of Catching Fire definitely wanting to dig into Mockingjay and find out what had happened to Twelve.

And then – well. Mockingjay lost me a bit. I took a longer time finishing it. I can’t explain why, exactly. I desperately wanted to find out how the revolution unfolded, but where I’d shed tears (yes, I did) over Rue in the first novel, some significant characters were done away with rather perfunctorily (I am not going to say who, in case you haven’t read it). They were nicely crafted and then discarded in an instant. I know not everyone can have a lovely death scene with flowers and singing – nor should they, because this is war – but I sometimes felt cheated. Plus, I’m on Team Peeta, and he wasn’t quite the same (I mean, obviously) in this instalment.

That said, if I look at the entire trilogy, the story arc makes complete sense. The Hunger Games had that nice build-up of excitement, then what felt like a reasonable resolution before Catching Fire got you all worked up again and left you panting for the third book. So after those two, Mockingjay is a resolution of sorts. And while there are loose ends left hanging, none of them were game-changers for me. I still came away from the trilogy with a strong appreciation for Collins’s sense of story.

And I still have no trouble understanding why the eleven-year-olds fight over the copies in their class library.

The Great Do-Over

I’ve spent this summer working on draft two of my novel, which, I’ll be honest, I was completely dreading. After all, who likes rewrites?

I knew it had a few problems, mainly plot-related. I tried everything possible during the first draft to outline the plot the way the experts tell you – I used note cards, I tried to write the whole thing out in a Word document, I read book after book about writing blockbuster novels and mastering the three-act story structure. And you know what?

I still have to rewrite it.

You always have to rewrite it, to some degree.

Now that I’m back in the thick of it I’m discovering places where the story works, but I can go deeper with the actual prose. And I’m finding it enjoyable, this layering of the story. It’s what I imagine plastering a room must feel like – adding to the base in nice, thin layers so you have an even coat, a perfect mix of imagery, characterization and story. I know the characters so much more intimately now – they took me in directions during the first draft that I never expected, and they continue to refine their own stories as I revise.

Every now and then I’ll admit to a small freak-out when I realize I’m on page 250 of a 500-page Word document, but I’ve set a deadline for myself (October 10) and I’ll make it through. I suspect the revisions on the back half won’t be as intense as the front, but you never know.

And when I’m done, of course, it’s probably on to round three.

Finding Time

Lately I’ve been thinking about time a lot. Not its passing so much (though that’s bothersome) but how to cram everything in. I catch myself saying, “if I just took an hour a day to do x,” and then I realize I have 26 “hour a day” things and only 24 hours in which to do them.

Obviously, there are choices (and sacrifices) to be made.

This article by Anne Lamott is a great prompt for writers who “never have the time” to follow their passion.

How to Find Time

Book Twelve: Saint Maybe

Book 12 was really supposed to be Vanity Fair, but I stopped reading partway through to dive into Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe, which I picked up at the Calgary Reads book sale last week. I often have more than one book on the go at the same time. I like to mix it up a little, especially when I’m reading classics.

I had only read one of Tyler’s novels before – Ladder of Years, which I picked up whenever it was a nearly-new novel. I couldn’t get into it for some reason, and after that tended to avoid her books. Which is why I was so surprised when a friend in my critique group said my writing reminded me of Tyler’s. After reading Saint Maybe I consider that a massive compliment. She is, as one reviewer put it, “drawn to small-scale domestic dramas.” This can be taken as either praise or criticism of her work, I suppose, but there’s something about her writing – the plain-spoken rhythm of it, the well-drawn characters – that transforms the everyday into something much more significant. I realize some people want big adventure and splashy escapism when they open a novel. I do, too, sometimes. But I’m often struck by how well some writers can tell stories rooted in the everyday. Anne Tyler is one of those writers.

The novel begins when Danny Bedloe brings his wife-to-be home to meet his family. He introduces her as “the woman who changed his life,” but Lucy quickly comes to change all their lives, especially that of Danny’s younger brother, Ian. Through a series of twists and tragedies Ian becomes the guardian of his nieces and nephew, the older two of whom were Lucy’s from a mysterious, previous  marriage. The story focuses on Ian’s quest for forgiveness, which leads him to drop out of college and attend The Church of the Second Chance, whose followers dedicate their lives to absolving their sins in practical, meaningful ways (like raising their brother’s three children, for example).

There is a scene later in the book where Ian visits the reverend of the church, and he brings along onion dip and potato chips. The reverend has always wanted to know how to make onion dip but has never learned, and so Ian teaches him (yes, soup plus sour cream) and they eat the potato chips and talk about the future of the church. I found this scene fascinating – Tyler weaves together the mundane and the significant so deftly the scene is wonderfully revealing. What does not knowing how to make his mother’s onion dip, which is really just onion soup mix and sour cream, say about a person? His relationship with his mother? His relationship with the person who shows him the recipe?

I read so often about how to craft scenes that do more than one thing, and it’s brilliant to see it laid out on a page. It has given me something to aspire to, that’s for certain.

Writing about Writing

I’ve always resisted the idea of making this a blog about writing, though in a sense it has never been anything but a blog about writing. Or not writing, it seems. But lately, writing about writing seems to make more and more sense. While I write for a living, the writing I do off the clock – fiction, natch – has, until the last year or so, been withering away in a dark back room somewhere, shoved aside in favour of more practical pursuits. I long felt that the world had enough writing blogs, and it didn’t need one more. Apparently I’m over that. Now I think ‘why not combine the two things that are inspiring me most right now, and share it with other people?’

Also, if I devote this blog to my 100 Novels experiment alone, you can expect roughly two posts a year.

I’m currently enjoying Book Twelve (which is really probably more like Book Thirty, still pathetic) but it’s a biggie. I could probably read four books in the time it’s taking me to read this one, especially since I dropped a glass of red wine on it the other night and stuck the last 150 pages together. So until I’m finished I’d like to share something else I stumbled on this morning: The Guardian’s Rules of Writing series.

Some of today’s most successful and inventive fiction writers share their rules for writing. They’re both funny and profound, and the list includes some of my personal favourites – Elmore Leonard, Roddy Doyle, and Margaret Atwood. Check it out, and tell me what you think.

Book Eleven: The Help

My first e-book!

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately, mostly about writing. And when I haven’t been doing that, I’ve been writing my own fiction. So my novel-reading had fallen by the wayside for a while, but I’m happy to say I’ve picked it back up. The Help by Kathryn Stockett was an easy place to start. It was like eating a bag of potato chips. I got started and plowed my way right through to the end. I had to – the iPad goes off to work with M during the week. Lucky for me I stink at Angry Birds.

I picked this up because we had a conversation about it in my writing group – in particular, the controversies surrounding it. I find the lawsuit pretty fascinating, because as writers we’re always afraid of creating characters that mirror someone we know too closely. So the question arises whether Stockett really did that, or whether it was unintentional and Aibileen was an amalgam of women she knew during the course of her life.

The other question the book raises – and it’s one I’m still struggling with – is when is it okay for a writer to assume a voice vastly different from her own. Some people find the African American characters in The Help offensive, that they’re caricatures akin to Mammy in Gone with the Wind. I don’t know how I feel about that. I saw the characters as far more three-dimensional than that, but I’m coming at it from a much different place than others might. I’m white, for one thing. And Canadian. We have different cultural baggage.

A part of me understands why people would say ‘you don’t have the right to write from that perspective.” The book even alludes to it – another white woman telling someone else’s story. And yet another part of me thinks: But it’s fiction, and once you start drawing boundaries around what a writer can and cannot create, even if they do it badly, you’re doing a disservice to the art form.

I wouldn’t call The Help great literature. I would definitely call it a great story. To some people, it seems, that’s all that matters. To others, it isn’t nearly enough.

Book Ten: The Hatbox Letters

Again, not really book ten, but whatever. I’ve blogged 1/10 of my experiment!

Another Canadian pick – The Hatbox Letters, by Beth Powning. This was a bit of an odd one for me, for various reasons. It’s a slow starter, and because I’ve been sitting around all medicated with a broken ankle, it may have taken me a bit longer to get into the right frame of mind. Once I did, I couldn’t stop reading.

Powning is a wonderfully descriptive writer. The main character, Kate, is in the process of grieving the death of her husband, Tom. She rambles about their empty house, thinking about what life was like when he was alive. Then someone gives her a bunch of hatboxes from her grandmother’s attic, and she starts to go through them.

This is where I was really drawn into the story. Kate dives into her family history, starting with the death certificate of her grandfather’s sister, who passed away suddenly at the age of eight. She sifts through bills and other artefacts that were tucked away in the attic for a century, forgotten by their original recipient. At the point the story-within-a-story begins, and we start to learn more about the family from 100 years ago. I’m not altogether sure if these vignettes are meant to be Kate’s imagination, running wild as she reads the letters and uncovers long-held secrets about her grandparents, or if we really are travelling back in time with the narrator, but it doesn’t matter, because the story is compelling and beautifully told. Back in the present, we follow Kate through the first year without Tom (what Joan Didion calls the year of magical thinking), as she comes to grips with his death and reconnects with someone from her past who’s also in the throes of grief.

It all sounds very depressing, but really, it isn’t. Kate’s story is told with some beautiful imagery – of winter storms, a big rambling house, the garden she and Tom worked on together (also a symbol of her grief and recovery). In the end you know she’s going to come out the other side. The story of her grandparents is one of resiliency, and Kate’s story is, too.

Book Nine: The Book of Negroes

Okay, not really. It’s probably book 25, but I’ll have to fill in the list backwards.

I’d had my eye on this book for a long time. I bought a copy for my sister and mailed it off to England, and promised myself I’d buy my own copy soon, only I never got around to it.  Then my mom had a copy from the library at the seniors’ centre where she volunteers, and she lent it to me. So. Finally.

It’s obvious that Lawrence Hill has done a metric pantload of research in order to write this book, and as a result he creates a narrative that takes us back to the sights, sounds, and smells of the mid-1700s. Animata’s story is full of compelling, descriptive prose – the kind that lets your brain work overtime as you try to comprehend how awful things must have been.

For the most part, I couldn’t put the book down. Once I started the story, I was hooked. This is basically what you want in any novel, right? So three cheers for that. But every now and then I had to pause and think. You know when you read a book that’s truly epic, that spans a pivotal time in history when major changes are afoot and major people are involved, and every last thing of significance happens to one character before she turns 25? It’s a syndrome often seen in Oprah Book Club picks, and Animata had a nagging case of it. It didn’t make me like her less as a character, but now and then it pulled me out of the story a bit and I’d think, “Aha, so she’s a conduit for telling me about this Major Event. Well, okay. I guess this could all happen to one person.” And really, I’m sure much of it did. I’m sure there were many men and women who were stolen and traded as slaves who had lives that would make our jaws drop. So I’m not going to hold it against the character, not at all.

Besides, I was too busy having my mind blown by all the horrible things that happened to everyone, which was the point of the story. The Book of Negroes definitely made me think about a dark part of Canada’s history. Nicely done, Mr Hill.

Book Eight – East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

I swear, I have read more than eight books this year. I’m discovering that it’s not so much the reading of the books that takes me so long as it is the writing about the reading of the books. If that makes any sense. I should really start making comprehensive notes, but that would mean being organized, and as if.

I’ve had East of Eden on my list for a long time. Back in high school, like almost every other kid, I had to read The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. I enjoyed Mice but found the tale of the Joads lacking in some way (maybe, because as my grandfather put it, The Grapes of Wrath is “such a downer“).

Anyway. Here I am in my thirties with that essay about the dusty Depression and the Joads’ journey to California far behind me, and there is East of Eden sitting on my bookshelf. And I’m going to admit that I was hooked right from the first page.

I don’t really understand why we think The Hills provides us with plenty of drama when there’s something as well written as a Steinbeck novel to fill the necessary quota of lying, cheating, whoring and murder. I mean, seriously, this book has it all, plus some Biblical allegory (I’m not giving anything away when I say “Cain and Abel”).

The story begins with Adam and Charles Trask, two brothers from different mothers, who spend their growing-up years, respectively, trying to dodge and trying to attract their father’s attention. Of course some resentment simmers – really simmers – and eventually Adam leaves the farm to wander the countryside, join the army, do time in jail, and other things.

No sooner does he come back to mend fences than Cathy enters the picture, and tears the two brothers apart again. Cathy’s not the type of girl you really want to get involved with, for various reasons I won’t go into here, but that doesn’t stop Adam, who marries her and takes her out to California to start a new life. Also, to get away from Charles, who thinks the whole Cathy situation is bad news.

Turns out Charles is right, and Cathy is bad news. And in the end, Adam ends up raising his twin sons, Aaron (sorry, Aron) and Caleb (Cal) on his own, with the help of his Chinese, um, manservant, Lee. Of course Cal and Aron have a contentious relationship, too, so the whole Biblical situation repeats again, only without anyone swinging a hatchet at anyone’s head this time. And as they’re growing up, Adam makes a fortune and loses it, and the boys find out some pretty unsavoury things about their mother (though we learn all the really unsavoury things, and they just learn one or two of them).

So, see? Drama, cheating, lying, murdering. And in the midst of it all are some really fantastic characters, like the Trasks’ neighbour, Samuel, who likes philosophical discussions, and Samuel’s wife, Liza, who’s as practical as they come. And Lee, who hides his brilliant intellect and perfect English behind a stereotypical facade, speaking in pidgin English and wearing a queue. Suffice it to say that thanks to the plot and all these interesting people, I couldn’t put the book down. I devoured it. And if you pick it up, I promise you will, too.