Book Review: Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

I am not a philosophy person.

I tried to be, back in college and I took Philosophy 101. I know all about the cave and Aristotle. It’s all nice and heavy, but it doesn’t really have to do with me deciding if I want to make stir fry or spaghetti tonight. That’s how I felt about this book.

This is the story of Lydia. In college, Lydia is fiercely passionate about philosophy and playing Schubert’s Trout on oboe and piano. She and her female friends argue about philosophy, Chaucer’s works, the meaning of life, sophism. Lydia sleeps with a guy, breaks up with him but still remain friends, then marries his roommate. As time goes on, the women continue to meet under the pretext of discussing philosophy, but they all got better things to do with their lives, such as raise families, have careers, usual life stuff. That’s the first half of the book. In the second half, disaster strikes Lydia and her family, and she tries to deal with the consequences by…philosophizing on why philosophy has failed her…

Oh, man, I can’t even finish it. Much like I couldn’t finish the book.

Maybe it’s because I’m not interested in philosophy. Or maybe I am, but not to the level that Schwartz have her characters doing in this book. I like the writing. Schwartz has some great passages in this book, such as when Lydia describes her aftercollege years before she gets married: “I was in a haste to live, and yet everything I did felt suspended in an ether of tentatively…I envisioned real life as a fixed point of arrival…” Lydia collects philosophy quotes like some Christians collect Bible verses. She keeps them in her mirror or in her purse, bringing each quote out again and again in conversations that go on for pages and pages. This is supposed to be heavy and thought-provoking and deep, but really, all Lydia is doing is navel gazing, and gazing at other women’s navels and having long, deep, boring, pedantic conversations. Pedantic. That’s our word for the day, by the way. Pedantic.

Maybe Schwartz shouldn’t have had Lydia as the narrator. Lydia’s life is so mundane, and once the disaster occurs, she becomes so wrapped up in herself, that it feels that none of the other characters want to be around her. Being the reader, I didn’t want to be around her, so I wound up skipping through the second half, mostly. It was just too hard to sympathize with someone who constantly analyzed her feelings over her non-feelings. Granted, what happened to her was tragic, but still, nothing happens. The whole book felt like: navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, FLASH OF INSIGHT, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, TRAGEDY, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, navel gazing, BITTERNESS, navel gazing, navel gazing, OUTSTANDING AND CATHARTIC TROUT PERFORMANCE, navel gazing…

Her friends seemed to have more interesting lives–Nina, who never marries but has an affair with a married man (she does has a wonderful monologue about her parents), Gaby who’s married to a man who loves her more than she loves him, and Esther, crazy, wonderful Esther, who frankly had the most interesting life of them all: going to Israel, marrying a hippie. Oddly enough, towards the end of the book, Esther drops out of Lydia’s life altogether. I bet if she was the narrator rather than Lydia, we would have gotten a better, more interesting story (and perhaps she wouldn’t end up living in a run-down apartment in Washington with 3 cats…)

Oh well. This gets 1 1/2 out of five Trouts, which is a shame because all her talk about the Trout made me go online and actually listen to it, and I agree, it’s a pretty piece and made the book a bit more bearable to read. But as it is, I’m taking it back. It’s been in the sun too long and is starting to stink.

Book Reviews: “Beneath a Marble Sky” by John Shors and “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Phillippa Gregory

Two book reviews for the price of one. Today only.

Actually, what happened was this: I started reading Marble Sky back in April, around the same time I was reading Prose’s book on Reading like a writer. I didn’t finish the Marble Sky book until the beginning of June, and by then, my online book club had started reading the Other Boleyn Girl. So I figured I’d play a little catch-up and start reading that book while I got read to review Marble Sky. Well, I got so caught up in reading the Boleyn book, that I decided to put the two reviews together, because, the two are surprisingly similar.

Both deal with politics within royalty. Both have female protagonists that merely wish to live their lives in peace and love. Both have siblings who hunger for the throne, and who win it, but are not happy to hold it. And both are historical fiction.

Marble Sky deals with Princess Jahanara, the daughter of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Being a woman who constantly looks up to her wise mother, Mumtaz Mahal, Jahanara is struggling in helping her brother Dara, more philosopher than ruler, to see the danger of their brother Aurangzeb, who is more cruel bloodthirsty and champing for the throne. After being placed in a loveless marriage, and witnessing her mother’s death in childbirth, she falls in love with the man who is the architect of building the greatest mausoleum in the world, Isa.

Jahanara’s world is full of plotting–scheming to spend time with her lover, scheming to keep Aurangzeb at arm’s length, even putting herself in dangerous situations to alleviate his hatred. She loves her parents tremendously and is heartbroken to see such strife within her own family. When Aurangzeb does grab the throne, Jahanara witnesses the downfall of her family, of Hindustan, of their entire way of life, and though she is powerless to stop it, she takes drastic steps to insure the safety of the man she loves.

Although this is a good book, there are some parts that was hard for me to read. Jahanara’s brother and the husband is quite cruel to her, doing thing that are downright torture. The fact that Jahanara willingly walks into these situations is very hard to watch, but indeed shows the strength of a very enduring woman who will do anything to protect her loved ones.

In contrast, Mary Boleyn is not a strong woman, not initially, anyway. She lives in a cloistered household where her parents see her and her siblings as commodities to do as they pleased. She is also placed in an arranged marriage, but what little love that could have eventually blossomed is squashed when Henry VIII takes an interest in her. Her parents then instruct her to forsake her marriage so she can become a plaything for the king, and enlist her siblings Anne and George to groom her into the right things to do.

Mary’s world is also full of plotting–except others do the plotting for her. She is pretty much a pawn of her family, forced out of duty to pleasure the king. Even her husband has no say, can only watch from the sidelines as his fortunes grow from his own wife being boinked by the king, who is portrayed by Gregory to be an overgrown spoiled brat, always wanting his way. At first, his desires are checked by the Queen, Katherine, who chooses to look the other way at her husband’s indiscretions while praying for his soul. But when Mary bears children, the king starts looking at her more-ambitious sister, Anne. And she isn’t content with just being a plaything. She wants to be Queen.

I have to say that I enjoyed the Other Boleyn Girl much more than Beneath a Marble Sky. Not to say that the latter isn’t a great book: Jahanara’s decisions and sacrifices had me quite enthralled. But you knew how relationships stood: Jahanara is the loving daughter. Isa is the man who loves her. Aurangzeb is the evil brother. Dara is the good brother. The characters and relationships to each other are clear cut. In the Boleyn saga, Gregory is far more subtle with her characters. There is no rape, no torture, no physical pain involved. Rather, all the turmoil in the book is more relational and emotional.

For instance, Mary’s relationship with the queen, two women trapped by the whims of the king. Because she doesn’t outright condemn Mary for taking on the interest of the king, she shows her displeasure through more subtle humiliations: when Mary gives her scarf to the king as a token during a jousting tournament, it is given to the queen by mistake. She holds up the scarf for Mary to see, then drops it to the floor in front of everyone and Mary is forced to pick it up. Yet despite knowing that the Queen dislikes her, Mary continues to serve her, looking up to her in a way that she can’t look up to her own, heartless mother. And when Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting abandon her for the more popular Anne, Mary is the only one who stays behind to serve her, partly from her own love of the queen, partly from guilt, and partly to act as spy for her uncle, who is determined to help Anne push Katherine out of the throne.

Then there is Anne herself. Viewed from her sister’s eyes, she is rival and friend, enemy and sister. Mary at one time is waited upon her, but as Anne’s popularity grows, she turns into caretaker as well, although their brother George is also in. Indeed, the three siblings, having nowhere else to turn, form a familial unit that almost borders on incestuous (and it is interesting how Gregory spins that side of George Boleyn–I came away with more of the impression that he could be another sister in a man’s body, that is until Anne starts getting very weird. But for that you have to read the book). However, the love they share, particularly between Anne and Mary, is always mixed with envy and spite. Gregory does a wonderful job in portraying Anne as a terrifying, catty character, but there is a price for her to act so; juggling her ambitions puts such a weariness in her that she only displays before Mary and George that is almost tender and sad.

Towards the end, Mary does find the strength to disobey her family and search out true love for herself. In fact, I would say that the two books almost mirror each other–both Jahanara and Mary escaping the pit their families had fallen into to find true love for themselves. And both have bitter endings, though Jahanara’s is a little more optimistic. Then again, she hadn’t seen both her siblings put to death as Mary did, and she doesn’t quite have the sense of doom that Mary has in knowing that the king has the power to do anything he wants. But while Jahanara’s ending was pretty much that for me, I hungered to know more on what’s life was like after Mary left, despairing that her sister’s only daughter will “never sit on the throne”. Good thing that Gregory wrote sequels.

So to rate these, I would give three 1/2 thrones out of five for Beneath a Marble Sky, but four 1/2 thrones for the Other Boleyn Girl. And if I ever get the chance to be queen for a day, I think I’ll pass.

Book Review: “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them” by Francine Prose

Finally, I’m getting back on track with my blog posts. Here’s an overdue book review for you. My reading for the past couple of months have been very slow, but it’s been worth it, especially with this book, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

Finding this book at B&N for $6 was perfect timing. I was getting our house clean for selling; I hardly got any writing done. I needed something writing related to keep me sane as I was chewing my nails, worrying if the next people who came to a house showing would be the ones to buy the house. Reading Like a Writer was the perfect escape for me.

I heard about the book a year ago from listening to the Writer’s on Writing podcast. Francis Prose said on it how surprised she was not to find such a book on the market, that the best way to learn how to write was to read–carefully read–great stories. Her slant in the book was to take it slow, read word by word, sentence by sentence, to get the full impact of how a writer crafted the story.

The excerpts she used in the book are mostly from classics like Dickens and Austin, though she also includes more contemporaries literary authors like Denis Johnson and Scott Spencer. She lists the excerpt, then goes on to pick it apart depending on what the chapter is discussing. On the chapter Sentences, for instance, she quotes an excerpt from Raymond Carver’s “Feathers” and then goes on to say:

“The sentences could hardly be more plain. There are hardly any adjectives except for the gray of the peacock’s feet. And there is that chilling phrase, “conniving streak,” which is all the narrator chooses to tell us about his kid. The lovely Fran has become “his mother,” “Her.” “Especially her”–two words that convey a universe of resentment and estrangement. The sentences break down into sentence fragments, just as they would in speech–in this guy’s speech–punctuating the long bass notes of the sentences that begin: ‘I remember…I recall…I remember…'”

I found Prose’s book very much like a class, a class of one, yes, but I could understand and get what she was trying to get across. I didn’t agree with all the examples she gave, but for the most part, she opened my eyes a lot in studying the different passages. And the advice she gives comes in handy. I liked how in the Narration section, she covers not just 1st and 3rd person point of view, but also the allusive 2nd person, which I’m currently doing a short story in and really appreciated the advice she gave on it.

This is a very different book from most of those writing books out there. It teaches you how to study writing of works so you can imply that knowledge to your own work. She also gives insight on how different writers spun their craft, from Dostoyevsky struggling with the best way to write Crime and Punishment (Prose lists how he wrote several sections “in the first person, as a diary, as confession, as memory, and as a combination of journal and drama”.) to Henrich von Kleist’s deadly flirtation with suicide when he wasn’t working on his novella.

As I went on, I started to try and guess what point Prose was trying to get across from the excerpts. In doing that, I began to discover on my own how to read the excerpts. I began to see the techniques the writers used. There was an especially long passage she listed that as I read it, I slowly begin to realize that two of the characters was of a different race than the protagonist. It’s never mentioned in the excerpt–I had to figure it out for myself from the clues the writer puts in the story. I had fun doing it, and I’m looking to get the book so I can read how things turned out.

In fact, Prose does include a reading list of all the books she excerpts. It’s something I’m seriously thinking about doing–just the other day, I was garage sling (ah, now there’s a verb for ya!) and came across a couple of hardbacks that looked interesting. After picking them up for a quarter apiece, I picked up Prose’s book and lo and behold, one of my books was on her list. (And for the record, let me just say, when it comes to books, garage sales in Madison rocks.) So I already got one book taken care of. 127 books to go.

But as for writing books, I know that this one is a definite keeper. I plan to keep it on my shelf, to page through it on occasion, to mark and highlight the death out of it. It’s not a easy book to read straight through during a weekend. This is a book to take it slow, to savor, to read a page and then sit back and think. And I think that’s how Prose intended it to be. Five books out of five, and if you’re looking for that interview of Prose, you can go right here to get it. Think I’ll listen to it myself.

Book Review: The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

All right, all right already. I finished the book. It took me two months to do it, but I read it, so I might as well sit down and write this review. You guys been bugging me about it, so I guess I have no choice.

What did I think of the book?

I don’t know. I’m still sorting out my thoughts on it.

In some ways, I didn’t like the book. I didn’t like the way that it challenged my Christian beliefs. There were so many things in this book that had me mentally screaming: “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” before my brain stepped in. LaShawn, calm down. Of course it isn’t true. It’s FICTION.

But there’s more than that. As much as I like Authurian retellings, I didn’t particularly like this one. I know Bradley wanted to tell the story from the women’s point of view, and it does sound pretty intriguing. She uses Morgaine as the main protagonist, but other women also tell the story: her mother Igraine, her half-sister, Morgause, her aunt Viviane, who is also Avalon’s Lady of the Lake, and of course, Queen Gwenhwyfar.

There’s just one slight problem in using the women of the Arthur legend. They’re boring. They’re incredibly, incredibly boring. Igraine’s history was the least boring–it shows her trapped within a tolerable marriage when she learns that she will instead marry her lover at the cost of her current husband’s life. She struggles with being a pawn of Avalon and loving Uther, her lover. But once the book switches over to Morgaine’s life, things slam to a halt. Morgaine grows up at Avalon, meets Merlin, thinks a lot on how Christianity sucks and serving the Goddess is far nobler, falls in love with her cousin Lancelot, have sex with her half-brother Arthur under the influence of a pagan rite…

And that was the other reason I couldn’t stand this book at first. Part of the time, it felt like the characters did nothing but argue with each other “God!” “No, Goddess!” “No, GOD!” “NO! GODDESS!” The other part of the time was “HAVE SEX WITH ME!” “NO! I MUSTN’T IT AIN’T RIGHT! BUT I FEEL BAD, SO I WILL!” There’s a scene where after Arthur and Gwenhwyfar are married, Lancelot abruptly decides to make out with Morgaine, a very unpleasant image came to my mind. I saw Bradley watching “Days of our Lives” and scrabbling madly, Okay so lets have Morgaine start lusting after Lancelot, who’s lusting after Gwenhwyfar…and then we’ll marry Gwen to Arthur, who doesn’t know that Morgaine is carrying his child…and at some point, I should have Gwen and Arthur and Lancelot do a threesome…”

Ugh. There were times that I almost gave up on the book. Just for that alone. But I was determined to finish it. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment or something.

The sad thing is, most of everyone’s actions are done out of love. When Gwenhwyfar wasn’t being a naive, shrill Christian fundamentalist harpy, (and sadly, that’s how she’s portrayed), she is truly tormented over being in love with Lancelot because she’s been taught that she is only supposed to be in love with her husband (never mind that she had no say in her arranged marriage). Morgaine is broken over what happened with Arthur and runs away from Avalon, torn over her guilt of handing her son over to fosterage. She even gets caught in fairy world for a few years (I actually found that interesting), but mostly, she sits and spins and sees visions from the Sight, but doesn’t really do anything other than sit and mope and spin…

Things do change from soap-opera-like to more Shakespearian Tragedy-like when actions from the first half of the book come home to roost and everyone starts to die. Oops…gave it away there, didn’t I? But really, people are dying, left and right, and even then the bitter war of paganism vs. Christianity continued even there.

I guess what really got me about this book is that this wasn’t so much a retelling of the Arthur legend but only a bunch of Authurian characters sitting around arguing about Christianity and Paganism, so much so that it felt like the book was really a debate in disguise of a story. Since reading the book, I read Bradley’s reasons for why she wrote the book, which can be found on her webpage. I think she wanted to hold a mirror up to the church (and not just the medieval church, who certainly did corrupt the teachings of Christ–but also the church of today) and show what an outsider would think of Christianity based on what that person saw of the church. If this was a commentary or an article, I’m sure that she would have gotten a lot of interesting feedback from the theological world.

Unfortunately, people don’t read commentaries or articles for entertainment. They just don’t care to think that hard. So I think Bradley decided to couch the concepts she struggled within the retelling of the Arthur legend through the women’s point of view. But I don’t think she did it all that well, at least to me. Because most of her Christians portrayed in the story come across as uneducated, arrogant, oath-breaking, bigoted weaklings. Meanwhile, the pagans come across as noble in their intentions, open-minded, loving, respectable and wise. At least, on the surface (there are a lot of things that the pagans did in the name of the Goddess that made me shudder). Those pagans who do come to Christianity, such as Igraine and Kevin, don’t really say why they do so. (And as far as I know, Igraine only ‘appeared’ to convert, but she remained a pagan at heart.)

But this isn’t a theological paper. It’s a book review. So what do I think of the book? Questionable. In many places, boring as hell. In other places, a lot of headshaking. Would I recommend it? Not really, though I wouldn’t mind looking into what others think of the book. I’ve heard that many attacked The Mists of Avalon for being anti-Christian and having an extreme pro-feminine agenda, and yet I also heard that Madeline L’Engle praised the book. It is the type of book that gets me thinking, that’s for sure.

I will say one thing. Being a woman, it’s oh so tempting to fall into this book’s theology, that paganism is on the same level as Christianity. There’s a part of me that is enthralled by ritual and the respect of nature, women dancing in moonlight, that sort of thing. I believe, and here is LaShawn’s very own personable opinion, that one could be a pagan Christian, lighting candles and being champions of nature. I think there are many ways to worship him. But I cannot say, God, Goddess, it’s all the same thing. That’s just not what I believe.

I don’t know. At this point, I would give a rating to the book, but seeing that I’m still trying to figure it out, I honestly can’t. If I’m forced to, on the book’s literary merit, it rates two 1/2 out of five chalices, but what is the power that’s holding the chalice? God or something else?

Feh. I think I’m thinking too hard on this. I’m going to go rent Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That will put things back into perspective.

 3/13 edit: Found an critique on the newly redeveloped Internet Review of Science Fiction called “The Magic Mundane: Re-examining the Supernatural in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon“. There are some places that your eyes will cross from the large words, but otherwise, I found it an interesting take on the book. Check it out, why don’t you?

Book Reviews at the Cafe (Or why should you care what I think about the Mists of Avalon…)

If you’re a regular at the Cafe, you’ll notice that I haven’t done any book reviews for a while. I can say that I’ve been busy working on our house, so I haven’t had time to read, much less write. And while that’s true, there’s also a more simpler reason–I got a bit burnt out on writing reviews.

It’s a big downside of being a writer. I can’t really read a book out of entertainment anymore. When I pick up a book, there’s a part of me that turns into an scientist of sorts, analyzing every word, every sentence. Why did the author chose ‘this’ word instead of ‘that’? Why would he chose to do this whole passage in dialog without any tags? Why put the description of the eyes ‘here’ when he could have done so at the beginning of the book?

Granted, it’s also a big plus, being a writer. It means that there are two levels I can enjoy the book: for entertainment, and for instruction. If it’s a really wonderful book, I learn how to incorporate its techniques into my own work. If it’s a mediocre, or even a horrible book, I learn what not to do and correct my writing accordingly. Writing book reviews is a way of cementing the lessons I learned into my brain, while at the same time giving you guys out there advice on what books to read and which ones to run away from (in some cases, screaming).

I’ve been wondering these past couple of months if I should continue doing book reviews at the Cafe. It’s not like I can’t do the same thing at a book review website–and I have been wondering if I should branch out a bit more to other blogs and such to gain more writing experience. Getting paid to review books is an option, too, though I don’t think there’s many avenues for this anymore. The book review as a whole has grown somewhat devalued since this whole blogging thing has started. And since “less people are reading books nowadays”, many newspapers have begun to cut down on their book review sections (I wasn’t surprised to learn that our own paper chose to move the book section from their Sunday section to their Saturday edition–which was a lame blow). Why bother paying for some schmoe’s review when a person could log onto anyone’s blog and read a review of it…for free?

I might look into doing some reviews on some outside blogs once everything here settled down into normality again (if that will ever happen), but in the meantime, I think I’ll continue my reviewing here. I can be open and honest with what I think, and I can write about any book I want, old or new. Plus, most of the people coming to the Cafe come to read my book reviews, according to my blog stats. If it’s a way to bring more people to the Cafe, then hey, come on in and dine to your fullest intent.

I think what I might do is limit myself to one book review per month. That way, I won’t get so burnt out in writing. I will list what I am reading for that month, so once I figure out that widget, I’ll put it up. And feel free to make comments of your own if you read the book or not. I have gotten some very interesting points of views from people who I don’t normally agree with, but the Cafe is an equal opportunity place. As long as you don’t say anything extremely nasty, we welcome all opinion.

And I should point out, all the reviews at the Cafe are copyrighted by LaShawn M. Wanak. Anyone using a Cafe review on their own website without permission will be bonked on the head with a plastic mallet.