Book Review: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

I’ll admit it, the bookstore window got me on this one.  I walked past the window on several occasions and this book looked very intriguing.  When I read the blurb, I decided to go for it. And I am not sorry!

Amanda and her family are on the way to their Airbnb in the wilds of Long Island.  She and Clay have the requisite two children, a boy and a girl, and Amanda worries about all the normal things a privileged white woman of our time worries about.  Is it sexist that Clay always drives, does she care? Do her kids fit in, are they going to be successful, is she successful, does she like her job as much as she is supposed to? The list goes on.  The opening of the novel is a little jarring.  In the style of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, the brand names are intentionally dizzying in frequency, which serves to ground the reader in Amanda’s material and materialistic world.  There is also a little head hopping, which while sometimes unsettling, contributes to the frantic tone and builds the humming anxiety that drives the characters.

Soon, things take a turn toward the dark side. First, the owners of the Airbnb show up asking to stay in the house with Amanda and Clay, because of a mysterious power outage in the city. From there, stuff just gets weirder.  What if all the things we count on in the modern world just stopped working? What if something happened, but there was no news about what it was or who had done it, or how long it would last? What if our phones no longer brought us alerts and information? 

I am not going to lie, the answers to these questions are not in the book;  that’s not the point. The point is to raise questions about society: how does it function and why? Are the things we spend our time on really important? What if things suddenly changed, would the same things be important or would we change our priorities? What does it mean to be a good person?

This book would be a great one to discuss in a book group, because it raises a lot of questions and answers none.  The answers will be in the discussions about the book, or rather, attempts at answers.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think Amanda is a likeable character?  Why or why not?
  2. Did you believe the Washingtons when they first showed up at the door?  What did you think of the situation at that point?
  3. What do you think happened?
  4. What do you think they should do?
  5. What would you do?

Throwback Thursday: Panic by Lauren Oliver (2014)

In honor of the new Amazon Prime series based on this book…

High school graduates in Carp, New York have an unusual tradition.  Each summer the recently matriculated seniors have the opportunity to participate in a Fear Factor style “game” in which the winner (and there can be only one) takes home a pot of cash collected from students throughout the year.  The game is run by judges selected secretly, who are also paid highly from the pot.  But Panic is not all fun and eating gross stuff.  Dangerous challenges are the norm and unlike Fear Factor, there are no harnesses or ambulances standing by in case of an emergency;  more than one person has met his end during the yearly festivities.  Heather, Dodge, Bishop, and Nathalie are all involved in this year’s Panic for various reasons.  Dodge is playing for revenge—his sister is paralyzed from a car crash during the final round (named “Joust”) of Panic.  Nathalie and Heather want to get out of Carp, and Bishop wants to keep Heather from getting hurt.  As teens are eliminated, the challenges escalate in the run up to the Joust.  Meanwhile, Heather’s home life with her drug addicted mother is falling apart.  Who will win?  Will our heroine survive?  Will she finally realize that she is in love with Bishop?  For the answers to these and other questions, read Panic.

This title will work for fans of reality TV or realistic fiction.  The main characters are flawed, but sympathetic, and there is the suspense of the game to keep the reader turning or swiping pages.  I would not recommend this to students under grade 9, due to subject matter.  The novel is very entertaining and there is some character growth.  Mostly, the adults are absent, but there are actually some nice, caring ones sort of on the periphery of the story.  This would make an interesting discussion for a teen reading group.  Several themes would bear talking about:  reality shows and what they have done/are doing to society; what people are willing to do (have always been—150 years ago teens might have been involved in a duel) for the sake of money and/or respect;  what substance abuse does to families—what are some appropriate responses if you suspect someone needs help;  what does it mean to love someone—is it a “feeling”  or is it an action?  I could go on, but you get it.

Old Friends and New Fancies an Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen by Sybil G. Brinton

This 1913 title lays claim to being the first Austen fan fiction. Brinton wrote no other novels and this one attempts to continue the stories of many characters from Austen novels all in one book, with Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park as the most well represented, though the other four also populate her story.

There are instances of real wit and cleverness, but ultimately the work is uneven, too stuffed with character names, and perhaps a little too fully Victorian in tone to really succeed as a sequel to Austen’s work.  Brinton seems on a mission to get everyone married and the number of couples she has to get paired up before the end of the novel lend a rushed quality to it that makes it less than satisfying.  For this reader, the main interest of Brinton’s work is as an artifact of Jane Austen fandom. Brinton claims to have used Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt as well as Austen’s own letters as inspiration for her continuation and she does marry Kitty to a clergyman.  However, some of the characters, Mary Crawford for example, seem to stray widely from their roots in Austen. 

Overall, the book is enjoyable as a window into Austen’s appeal almost 100 years after her death and to her growing fandom.  The very fact that Brinton felt the desire to write a continuation of Austen’s novels and the joy she found in reading Austen as remarked in her introduction to the work, are glimpses of reader reception in the pre-WWI period. My favorite depiction by Brinton is Georgiana Darcy, who comes off favorably and reasonably in Old Friends and New Fancies. If you are interested in the history of Austen reception or just want to see the first fan fiction rendering of her characters, give this one a go. 

You can get it for free on your kindle app or read it on Project Gutenberg here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/43741/43741-h/43741-h.htm

The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl’s debut novel, The Dante Club, was a huge bestseller and proof that literary doesn’t have to mean boring.  This gem is perhaps less well known, but the storyline is just as fascinating.  The premise is that as the copyright loophole which allowed for pirating the works of foreign writers residing in other nations was about to close because of The International Copyright Act of 1891, a small group of book pirates and adventurers are on one last mission in the South Seas to steal a novel being written by a dying Robert Louis Stevenson.  As usual, Pearl combines fact and fiction in a cocktail which will entertain and edify readers, while also giving them a healthy dose of swashbuckling adventure. His prose is tight and the characters are just mysterious enough without crossing into the ridiculous category.  Give this one a go if you like fan fiction based on classics. 

Pearl may be challenging, but he is never boring.  Who knew that copyright could be so exciting?

Finding the Gap and using Outliers as models when writing Historical Fiction

This is part 2 of a series about writing compelling characters in Historical Fiction. You can find the first part here.

According to James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, part of the difficulty in dealing with the history of a subordinate group is that there is a public transcript of events and a hidden transcript, which the dominant group neither knows about nor may access.   Further, the hidden transcript is not necessarily a part of the written record, or if it is written, it may exist in sources outside the norm, such as rumors, gossip, songs, rituals, euphemisms, or jokes.  Actions may also be a part of the hidden transcript.   A quotation from page 14 bears exact reproduction:

“Tactical prudence ensures that subordinate groups rarely blurt out their hidden transcripts directly.  But, taking advantage of the anonymity of a crowd or of an ambiguous accident, they manage in a thousand artful ways to imply that they are grudging conscripts to the performance.”

The performance he refers to is the dominant group’s version of reality.  Add to this the now accepted view that history is written by the victors and the astute writer of historical fiction will see room for characters who neither assent nor conform inwardly to the dominant group’s conception of reality. They may even occasionally find ways to express their non-assent, although their expressions may be covert.  It would be ridiculous to assume that marginalized groups were satisfied with the status quo and never sought to upend it, even if their resistance was in small acts.  In her 1989 article, “The Return of the Repressed in Women’s Narrative,” Susan Stanford Friedman argues that women’s writing may be read as a form of disguised record of the forbidden. That women’s public writing had to disguise what they wanted to say more than their private writing.  Women were protesting or “writing against the grain” from the beginning, and if they were writing against the grain, what else might they have done? In “History to the Defeated: Women Writers and the Historical Novel in the Thirties,” Diana Wallace points out that one of the many factors contributing to a boom in female authored and centered historical fiction during the 1930s was the renewed interest and demand for information about the lives of women in history.   In addition, a surfeit of women who graduated from University after studying History, but who were denied entrance to other occupations, took up writing historical fiction.   All of this brings to mind Catherine Morland, who observes somewhat dryly, in Northanger Abbey

“I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. “

Exactly–a great deal of it IS invention, by the victors.  Indeed, if women (and others) are not part of the public transcript, with the exception of outliers, what might the hidden transcript reveal about them, if only we had it complete? 

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Another way of looking for characters who were forward thinking is to model them on famous outliers.  One of my favorite historical outliers is Aaron Burr.  I know you may think him a villain, but that is because he has been used as a scapegoat for the founders’ shortcomings for WAY too long.  In her very excellent biography of Burr, Fallen Founder, Nancy Isenberg argues successfully that Burr was a man of his time with regard to politics, but  ahead of his time with regard to women’s rights–an avowed reader and respecter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who educated his daughter to the same standard others of his time would have educated a son. She also argues that his roles in the 1800 election and the 1804 duel with Hamilton have largely been misconstrued both by the popular press and by the other founders, who were willing to paint Burr as a traitor in order to further their own political ambitions–Hamilton and Jefferson seem to be the most culpable, Madison less so.  She further asserts that Burr’s lack of care over his own legacy in contrast to the other founders’ near obsession with theirs, contributed mightily to the oversimplification of Burr’s role in the early Republic.  In the forward to the 1836 edition of his memoirs, written and published posthumously by Matthew Davis, the author admits freely to destroying a large quantity of Burr’s correspondence, because it would have been “injurious” to the reputations of some families.  Burr was quite the ladies’ man, and morality was thought of differently in the late eighteenth century than it was in the Victorian era, which Davis was butting up against.  It is a shame, really, that so much was lost.  He also admits to not telling everything Burr told him about some of the other founders–some of which may have been biased, but may also have given us a fuller picture of the founders and taken some of the veil of villainy away from Burr.  Alas, we’ll never know for sure–but this gap, like so many others in history and the outlier sensibilities of Burr could be exploited, and have been, to write some pretty wonderful historical fiction.

You cannot make a Burr, a Christine de Pizan, or an Eleanor of Aquitaine the average character in your book, but you can definitely make them the focus of the book. Look for where there is something missing–and use your historically informed imagination to fill in the gap.

Throwback Thursday: Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty (2013)

What happens when a woman makes one spectacularly bad choice?  In Yvonne Carmichael’s case it leads to several other spectacularly bad choices and she ends up accused and on trial at the Old Bailey.  I have read several other reviews of this book and many people seem to think Yvonne is unbalanced or unbelievable, but I certainly did not see her that way.  She tells the story to us in stages, only revealing part of the truth, just like real people do. How many times have you played down something you did that you thought was wrong, or embellished something you did to make yourself sound like a better person?  It isn’t exactly lying, but it isn’t exactly telling the truth, at least not the whole truth.  That is what Yvonne, the main character does in Apple Tree Yard, does.  And the final truth, when it comes, is stunning.  It is not often that I am surprised.  

Yvonne is fifty-two and she is on the downward slide in her career.  She and her husband are cordial, but not intimate.  She meets a mysterious man who works for the government.  He has a few honesty issues, too.  She does something she never expected to do, begin an affair.  I do not want to spoil the book by giving away the story, but I think that Louis Doughty captures the ennui of middle age quite fantastically.  One of my favorite quotations is when Yvonne writes about her work on her PhD.  She and her husband, Guy, are both scientists.  She says, ”Guy completed his PhD in three years and mine took seven.  Funny that.”  Later this is explained, “This was something he never understood:  yes, he would give me time to work when I demanded it, but my time was considered to belong to our family unit unless I signaled that I wanted out.  His time was considered to belong to himself and his work unless I demanded that he opt in.”  This is probably the most succinct explanation of the dilemma of working women of a certain age I have ever seen.  Younger women have men who view family life totally differently, but for the generation between the 1970s and now, those women who are currently middle aged, this is the reality.  It is nice to have that acknowledged and written out loud. Yvonne isn’t unbalanced or unrealistic.  She is realistic to a fault.  She makes an error in judgment that has repercussions she could never have imagined, and that is what makes a great story that I could hardly stand to put down.  That and wonderful writing.  

UPDATE: There is a 4-part Hulu series based on the book that is quite good.

Thrillers: Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell and The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Both of these thrillers are worth reading–even if they aren’t totally surprising, they do contain plenty of suspense, some misdirection, and the writing is just so good.

Invisible Girl is a tale told from multiple points of view which features a central mystery about a series of sexual assaults and how all the characters are related to them. There’s the mom, Cate with her psychologist husband and her two normalish kids who maybe seems a little rudderless. There’s the titular invisible girl, Saffyre, love the name and the spelling, who is damaged goods, but the reader isn’t sure how. She had been a patient of Cate’s husband, Roan, but now appears to be stalking him. Then there’s Owen. He’s an odd duck, a teacher at a local college, who lives with his aunt (and he’s over 30); accused of sexual harassment early on and somehow involved in the mystery, but you’ll have to read it to find out how. The best thing about this novel is that it doesn’t give in to the stereotypes–the characters are neither perfect nor completely worthless–they are somewhere in between. The events of the novel are not a lesson in anything, they are a portrayal of a story that might happen anywhere–anywhere human beings live. There’s no big twist, but there is some doubt leftover at the end, which most thriller readers will appreciate. Mystery not quite solved…

If you enjoy a gripping read with nuanced characters, this is a fantastic choice. Stayed up late to finish it!

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Cate’s character grow over the course of the novel? 
  2. What do you think is the motivation propelling Saffyre to follow Roan?
  3. Did you find Owen sympathetic? Is he a reliable narrator of his own story? Why or why not?
  4. Did you find any part of the story something that might actually happen? Which parts?
  5. Which character did you find most relatable? Why?
  6. What was it in the story that kept you in suspense?

The Plot is also a thriller, but of a more complex nature.  It is kind of like if You and Medea had a love child, it would be this book. I don’t want to spoil it, so that is all I will say about the actual plot.  The Plot is told from the point of view of our main character, a writer who has always dreamed of writing the Great American Novel.  He had a decent first book, but his second was weak and he ends up teaching in a “low residency” MFA program in Vermont. When a student reveals his idea for a novel that he thinks can’t fail, Jake agrees and waits, painfully, for the book to debut.  Fast forward a few years.  Jake has descended even further down the food chain in publishing, working as a freelance editor and book coach (!), when something jogs his memory;  he recalls that the book never came out and he hasn’t heard from the student.  Jake discovers after a few Google searches that the student died just a couple of months after the end of the writing program and the book never went to press.  He digs further and finds that no one seems to know anything about the manuscript. You know what happens next…

Jake becomes a best selling author, darling of the reviewers, the talk shows, Oprah even chooses his book for her book club. He is riding high when the first message comes: I know what you did. 

Korelitz’s novel examines what it means to be a writer when “anyone can write a book” and “everyone has a unique voice and a story nobody else can tell.” One gets the idea she is winking at the reader all the way through the novel.  It’s a thriller, and there is a puzzle, but the puzzle isn’t the thing. This is a novel for book lovers; there are so many Easter eggs for literature geeks, I am sure I missed several.  My favorite was when Jake salves his conscience with thoughts straight from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic–if he doesn’t write the novel, the idea will leave him and go to another writer–he has to write it, of course he does! There are loads of places where the bibliophile will smile, smirk, and knowingly chuckle–this book is for you. Jake is so focused on himself and his writing, he misses what is right in front of him, which the astute reader surely will not. 

Artfully done, and the right readers will enjoy the ride for all it is worth. I will post the Discussion Questions on a separate document and make a link to it here to keep from ruining the book for you. Savor it.

Historical Accuracy, political correctness, and authenticity…

My daughter and I recently went to the “Sherwood Forest Faire” near McDade, Texas.  It was great fun!  There were costumes, shows with everything from singing to falconry to jousting, and pineapple soft serve.  Looking around at the various types of costumes, level of historical accuracy, and the relation between this and the enjoyment of the day made me think of writing historical fiction.  Stay with me, I’ll get there.

There are two very distinct and frequently vocal sides to the “historical accuracy” argument when discussing the writing and reading of historical fiction. There is the side which proclaims that only by being PRECISELY historically accurate in EVERY detail can a writer do the historical period justice; on the opposite are those who say that NO MODERN AUDIENCE will read a truly historically accurate portrayal of times periods, which were to put it politely, racist and misogynistic in the extreme, so writers would not really try that hard, because readers don’t care.  I would argue that readers prefer writers to be as historically accurate as possible, with a few caveats…  I think it is possible to write historical fiction that is AUTHENTIC, as opposed to being pedantically accurate.  Good historical fiction lies somewhere between David Liss and Bridgerton…

Often those who most vociferously argue for strict historical accuracy are worried about presentism–and they are not wrong.  Presentism is when we try to cast modern views backward, or interpret the past through the lens of our modern sensibilities.  It is important when writing History that we do not do this–judging the past by our current values simply does not work.  If you reversed it and tried to judge the present by historical values, it would be equally impossible to do.  However, this does not mean that we sacrifice the story in a historical fiction novel to the gods of either historical accuracy (always a dicey and subjective proposition) or political correctness.  Neither of these approaches is going to work when writing historical fiction. This would be like making everyone who wants to wear a costume to Sherwood Forest Faire have to meet some historical accuracy test, or give up all the fart jokes because they are offensive. Some of the costumes were pretty accurate, some weren’t (I saw zippers), but the idea is to represent the period authentically and have fun. It’s fiction, not history. I mean I don’t REALLY want to be in the middle ages, but I want to have the experience of seeing, hearing, and feeling as if I were (sort of) there.

First, let’s look at historical accuracy.  It is true that you want to render the time and place as accurately as you can.  However, there are a few things that will probably not work for writers of historical fiction, no matter how accurate they are.:

  1. Dialogue— it is a safe bet that your dialogue is not going to be completely accurate.  If it were, depending on the time period, your book would most likely be unreadable by a modern audience, except for a few people who just happen to be even bigger history nerds than you.
  2. The sheer difficulty of everyday life in most pre-modern eras.  Lots of people died young, illness and uncleanliness were rife, and the majority of the population lived in abject poverty.  These are not the ingredients for an entertaining novel.  This is not to say that you won’t include a measure of reality, but the actual reality of the past would prove depressing for most readers.  That isn’t why they read historical fiction.  Occasionally an author will venture into this area, and many award winning books do, but it isn’t something most readers will want a steady diet of. And the stench…just imagine!

And what about political correctness? Like the reality of everyday life in historical eras, a little goes a long way.  You may have some characters in your story who are ahead of their times, but everyone can’t be.  That isn’t historical fiction, that is just wish-fulfillment. There is a balance, though, which a good writer can find.  There are  lots of unknowns in history, so there is wiggle room–we cannot always assume that everything relevant about the past has survived to the present. There is a lot of missing data. If you look hard enough, you can find the gaps and the outliers–and here is where a good story that will appeal to modern readers lives.

Next month:  Finding the Gap and Outliers!