Tag Archives: fiction

The Use and Abuse of Fiction – personal opinion

Why write fiction about real events? Why make up stories about World War II, or Ireland or the Great Depression? Why not stick to imagined worlds, like JK Rowling’s delightful, magic permeated version of England?

Consider the wild popularity of the “Humans of New York” Facebook site. There are SO MANY tales to be told. Why not tell them, as is done with Holocaust survivors and military veterans (to name a few) in oral history projects? I offer The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline as an example of a book written about events that, I believe, have been extensively documented. More about it below.

Sometimes the truth is just too painfully awful to bear.

  • Warriors Don’t Cry by Melba Patillo Beals, who participated in the battle for school desegregation as a high schooler, is a non-fiction account so harrowing I couldn’t read it.
  • The truth behind Beloved by Toni Morrison is even worse than that portrayed in the book/movie, in which an enslaved woman kills her child to keep him from slavery.

Fiction represents a selection of what is (or isn’t) “meaningful” or important about an era or event. I’m convinced that “meaning” is assigned, not inherent. The meaning that an author assigns to an event may be very different from what participants experienced. If the people are available (or left records), I would rather listen to real voices than read a fictionalized account.

I think fiction represents a consensus (of sorts) on what we are going to remember, emphasize and/or construe about events.

Fiction has its conventions. Usually major characters stay alive for most of the book. I was truly shocked when Vikram Seth killed off a major character in the middle of The Golden Gate. That’s what happens in life, not in novels!

Stephen Dunn (poet and professor) says that southern New Jersey (where I live) “hasn’t been imagined yet”. Very little fiction or poetry about this region has been written. To me, that means there’s no consensus about what we will or won’t discuss about South Jersey. Fiction sets boundaries. No one has decided what South Jersey means.

Means to whom? Our local poet? We the residents? Scholars somewhere else? (Will South Jersey Studies be invented one day?) We will surely choose to keep the sun and sand. What about the past? How long will it take to digest Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson? Will we study slaveholders or the underground railroad?

So how did Peter H Davies, author of The Welsh Girl, (a novel about WWII) decide what (and who) to keep and who to discard? Why did he include ONE historical figure (Rudolf Hess) in this work of fiction?

Maybe studying history is just TOO MUCH WORK, too intellectually challenging. The Orphan Train was selected as a Common Reading (for a college, with the emphasis on the Freshmen) because it was “accessible”. Translate that to mean not too long, not too complicated… (I found it didactic.) Serious study of the events and historical period was apparently not considered. (I get it, but are we underestimating student intelligence?)

I was surprised, when I checked, to find out that I split my reading almost 50/50 between fiction and non-fiction. I thought I was leaning more towards fiction.

I very much enjoy “fantasy” fiction, but I would guess it’s a small fraction of what I read, maybe 10%. I LOVE a good alternative world.

My point? Does anyone else have a problem with fictionalized accounts of real events? Do you worry that you might be misled? That an author might be biased? How should fiction be incorporated into education? If a book pops into your mind when you consider this, I’d particularly like to hear about it.

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“The Lost Island – a Gideon Crew Novel” by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Genre – adventure and action.

Don’t read this. Usually “adventure and action” is at least okay with me. But this was preposterous, and I didn’t finish it.

Ripping off The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle doesn’t count as “creative”.

My feminist sensibilities were offended by the male fantasy character of an incident early in the book, in which a female character was “created” and then dropped from the plot for no apparent reason. How come editors don’t ever why? 

Okay for rainy day beach reading, if absolutely nothing else is on hand.

“The Mountain Midwife” by L. Eakes and “The Secrets of Midwives” by S. Hepworth

How did I end up reading two books about midwives in the same month? Better not to speculate…

The first of these books was not worth the time it took to read it. Eakes is described (by Wikipedia) as a “romance author”. She does not do well by the genre. Her characters are relatively one dimensional. She’s got some kind of Christian/family values “agenda” going on which I found annoying.

The Secrets of Midwives was better. There are two main themes:

  • The joy and wonder of birth
  • The power of secrets, both to protect and to injure

Carrying these threads through three generations, Hepworth writes a gripping tale. Some of the romance was a bit trite, but overall this was a good read.

“Catch 22” by Joseph Heller – the book and the play

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I saw Catch 22 last night at the Curio Theatre in Philadelphia. I read the book 50 years ago. This should explain any incoherence in my comments.

The setting is the European theatre of World War II. The characters are members of the Allied military stationed in Italy, and local residents they meet.

Joseph Heller, a WWII Air Force bombardier, published the book in 1962 and the theatrical adaptation in 1971. Catch 22 (either way) is black satire – funny but tragic. It deals with war as hell without actually showing the battlefield, while vividly showing the human toll.

The program note reads “This theatrical adaptation distills a non-linear 450-page book with over 60 characters…down to a mere 89 pages” with 35 characters. And it was performed with SIX actors! Character changes were signaled in many ways, not just through costume but through accents, posture, etc. All the skills of an accomplished actor. Casting ran across gender lines. (Is this becoming a norm?)

Catch 22 struck a chord with my generation as we wrestled with the Vietnam “conflict”, the first of our undeclared wars. World War II was fought by a military that relied on draftees, as was Vietnam. The difference is that we won World War II and lost in Vietnam, after which the United States shifted to an “all volunteer” military.

World War II is widely featured in fiction. I’ve read some post-Vietnam fiction, but only non-fiction from the more recent wars fought in the Middle East. Every war finds its way into literature.

Enough history for now! I was excited and impressed by the Curio Theatre Company. They perform in a renovated church in West Philadelphia, part of a localist movement that goes right down to the street level. (“Localism” is a word. I checked.) The Baltimore Avenue Business Association is a sponsor. The performance space is small and the audience sits on three sides of the stage. Lighting, sets and costumes are entirely professional. It’s an amazing accomplishment!

Catch 22 runs until May 19. You can see it! Tickets are available on line.

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

 

This book is a treat. It’s romantic without being sentimental. As England recovers from World War II, a young woman accidentally begins corresponding with a resident of the island of Guernsey, a part of Britain that fell under Nazi control during the War. She travels to meet her pen pal and finds the island beautiful and the people charming.

If you have ever belonged to a book group, you will love this novel! The “literary society” of the title emerges accidentally, when residents are caught out after an occupation curfew. They don’t stop reading and meeting when the War ends.

The island of Guernsey suffered cruelly under wartime conditions. Residents and occupiers alike were on the verge of starvation when the war ended. Winston Churchill refused to send humanitarian aid because he was afraid it would fall into enemy hands. My misgivings about Churchill grow stronger.

Enjoy this book!

Recent Reading

Hello, Friends! I’ve gotten WAY behind in writing for this blog. The last time I said that, I stated that the reasons were all positive – travel and other enjoyment. I’m afraid I can’t say the same this time. A close family member had serious health problems over the winter. I’ve been distracted, to put it mildly. Now, I can say (with cautious optimism) that things are back to normal.

For completeness sake, here’s a list of what I read but failed to write about:

“The Man Who Loved Books too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession ” by Alison Hoover Bartlett

Three novels by Alexander McCall Smith:

  • “The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine” from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series
  • “Sunshine on Scotland Street”
  • “The Novel Habits of Happiness” (Isabel Dalhousie series)

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

“The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” by Mackenzi Lee

“The Orchardist” by Amanda Coplin

“The Word Detective – A Memoir – Searching for the Meaning of it All at the Oxford English Dictionary” by John Simpson

“The Glassblower” by Petra Durst Benning

“American Gods”: The Tenth Anniversary Edition by Neil Gaiman

So… I’ve been on a major fiction kick! Only two non-fiction titles in the list. One item in the Young Adult category, “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue”. More female authors than male.

I’ll write about some or all of these sooner or later. Leave a message if there’s a book here about which you feel particularly curious. Thanks!

“Hardcore Twenty-Four (A Stephanie Plum Novel)” by Janet Evanovitch

Product Details

Another romp through Trenton, NJ, and the wacky life of Stephanie Plum, bail bond enforcer and woman on the loose. Stephanie and her sidekick Lula are always tracking down miscreants, some of whom are dangerously antisocial. She’s helped by her three “boyfriends”, a police officer, a private security expert and a psychic superhero from another dimension. Everything goes wrong, as usual, but our heroine survives. Don’t stop writing, Janet. New Jersey loves you!