Tag Archives: novels

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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“Persuasion” by Jane Austen

I re-read Persuasion because it was selected by a book group. We were asked to read the first ten chapters (out of 24), but I couldn’t stop and finished the book. One of the major plot twists (a dire injury) comes after Chapter 10, so our discussion was somewhat limited. And confused, since we kept wandering past Chapter 10.

As a comedy of manners, this book rates 100%. Jane Austen is, as always, observant and very witty.

Thinking back to Mansfield Park (see blog entry May 25, 2013), I have asked myself whether this is also a book about morals. Yes, to some extent. The moral question being explored is the value of “constancy” or “firmness” in a person’s character. Austen’s characters seem to value it, but at a crucial moment in the plot (the “dire injury” referenced above), firmness becomes stubbornness, with a disastrous outcome. Austen makes note of this, but it is not analyzed in any depth.

Jane Austen will always be a “go to” author when I want to soothe myself by reading.

“The Signature of All Things: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, this is the book that threatened me with “literary flu” (see December 17 blog post.) I bravely fought off my burning desire to read instead of going to work. I even managed to make this wonderful, absorbing book last six days!

This book is the story of a American life, from birth in 1800 to very old age.

Some pluses… It’s about a woman’s life. Much of it takes place near Philadelphia. Although none of the characters is actually a Quaker, Quakerism is given its due as an aspect of Philadelphia society. Abolitionism also plays a part.

But fundamentally, this is a book about the study of nature, especially plants. Alma Whittaker was the daughter of a man who grew plants, sold plants and supported the study of plants, with the emphasis on their medicinal qualities. He became fabulously rich in the process. Alma grew up surrounded by scientists (they called themselves natural philosophers) and businessmen of all sorts. Female role models were in short supply, but Alma, perhaps because she had no brothers, was encouraged to be intellectually bold.

Elizabeth Gilbert creates a memorable protagonist in Alma Whittaker and then surrounds her with intense, surprising characters. There’s Prudence, who turns up one dark night and is adopted as Alma’s sister. She sheds her background of poverty and ignorance and grows up to be a dedicated abolitionist. There’s a man named Tomorrow Morning, who loses his entire family, selects a new father and builds a new, rich life. Gilbert even manages to make a dog named Roger into a memorable character. (I don’t usually pay much attention to dogs, in life or in fiction.) Not every character is benign. The peripheral Mr. Yancey is mysterious and very dangerous.

Another “plus” from my point of view is that several characters in this book are Dutch and some of the story takes place in Netherlands, a country I for which I have a decided soft spot.

This book celebrates the beauty of nature and the JOY of studying nature. Neither is sufficiently appreciated here and now. Other types of intellectual activity are also lifted up – the study of languages, for example. Our heroine speaks four languages, plus Greek which she regards as a special treat. She undertakes to learn an Asian language under challenging circumstances.

One criterion of an excellent book is that it encourages you to read more, and not just work by the same author. This book led me to think about reading Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man in particular. I tend to think of myself as well informed on the subject of evolution. I hang around with biologists and experts in related sciences, but no, I have not read Darwin, though his books and many commentaries thereon are around the house. I envision reading Darwin as a project that might take years! I wonder if that’s true.

I have intentionally written this post without looking at the reviews of others, or even checking on Ms. Gilbert’s other published works. A few years ago, I read her two non-fiction books, Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. The first was good enough, the second (to use a culinary turn of phrase) disagreed with me. I never expected The Signature of All Things to be so very marvelous.

Two holiday novels by Janet Evanovich – “Thanksgiving” and “Visions of Sugar Plums”

Janet Evanovich feels like a friend. She’s not the same kind of Jersey Girl as me, but I’ve lived in this state since age 25. I AM a Jersey Girl, though often I don’t realize it until I get out of state. I have a long, intermittent relationship with Trenton, one of America’s really messed up, suffering cities. And I have been to dinner in Chambersburg, the Trenton neighborhood that is home to Stephanie Plum, Evanovich’s most popular heroine.

I downloaded Thanksgiving to keep me company on my way to and from a family Turkey Day gathering. It’s a fluffy romance, not a Stephanie Plum crime novel. You know from the beginning that the two appealing young protagonists are going to get together, and you can laugh at the mischances and misunderstandings along the way. Thanksgiving is softer and more romantic than most of Evanovich’s books. But if you just want to relax and ignore your surroundings for a little while, this book is perfect.

My family, bless them, was relatively sane over the holiday. I couldn’t believe the tales I heard at the office on Monday!

If you really want to laugh out loud, get Evanovich’s Christmas book, Visions of Sugar Plums, originally published in 2002. I loved it! I re-read it several times, then gave it (as a Christmas gift) to someone who needed a good laugh. It provided my first introduction to Diesel, Stephanie’s third, “slightly” supernatural boyfriend. It is fast paced (like all the Stephanie Plum novels) and hilarious. Pure fun!

Thanks, Janet Evanovich, for keeping me entertained so many times over the past 20 years. Keep writing, and I will keep on reading!

“How to Read Literature Like a Professor” by Thomas Foster

This book is fun. If you enjoy fiction but wonder if you are “getting” it, or you want to upgrade to “literary” fiction or tackle some classics, you need this book. Foster describes reading as a game of “connect the dots” and offers suggestions for how to “get the picture” quicker.

Foster’s chapters tend to come in pairs. “Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion” is followed by “Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires”. Who can resist?

The chapter entitled “Its All About Sex…” is followed by “…Except Sex”.

Breezy chapters cover Shakespeare, the Bible, fairy tales and Greek mythology.

In addition to frequent references to his favorite books, Foster provides an extensive reading list. If you are tired of what you can find in mall bookstores, this is helpful.

To me, the best chapter was “Don’t Read With Your Eyes”. He means, don’t read with your OWN eyes. You’ll miss a lot if you apply 21st century attitudes to Hamlet, for example. I tend to be rather literal minded, so I need that type of reminder.

I am planning to apply the “don’t read with your own eyes” logic to the work of non-fiction that will be the subject of my next blog entry. It was written around 1970. Not exactly the Dark Ages, but attitudes change quickly and by today’s standards it raises many red flags.

Foster wrote a second, equally lively, volume entitled How to Read Novels Like a Professor, and amazon.com carries a “for kids” edition. Foster deserves lots credit for enhancing people’s reading experiences at a time when so many distractions are available.

“My Life in Middlemarch” by Rebecca Mead

Back in October I enjoyed Middlemarch by George Eliot. Rebecca Mead’s recently published book-about-the-book was a delight. Mead read Middlemarch as a youngster and returned to it at various stages in her life, eventually visiting many locations important in the life of the author George Eliot.

Aside from knowing that “George Eliot” was a pseudonym for a female author, I was ignorant about the interesting life of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot. Mead brought her to life for me. She was intelligent and highly unconventional in a time and place when women’s roles were extremely constrained. She lived with a man who never divorced his estranged wife, and financially supported that woman’s children by another man.

One aspect of Eliot life that was shared by Mead was being a stepmother. Both women “acquired” sons by marriage whom they dearly loved.

Eliot’s appearance is often commented upon. Some found her homely, but it’s clear that many were so charmed by her that they found her beautiful. Mead’s comments make it clear that intelligence and vivacity made up for much in Eliot’s case.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes English novels or is especially interested in women’s writing.

“The Patron Saint of Liars” by Ann Patchett

I read this book because I loved Patchett’s Bel Canto. In each of these books, Patchett creates a microcosm and draws the reader into it. The microcosm in Patron Saint is St. Elizabeth’s “home” for pregnant girls in an large, disused hotel surrounded by vacant land in Tennessee.

The story uses three narrators in sequence (not jumping from one to another). Rose married young and realized, when she became pregnant, that she did not love her husband. She leaves her husband and her life, and travels from California to Tennesee. Son is the middle aged handy man at St. Elizabeth’s who marries Rose and adopts her daughter. The family stays at St. Elizabeth’s. Cecelia is the daughter, who soaks up love and attention from everyone at St. Elizabeth’s except her distant mother.

Who is the liar? The girls who come to St. Elizabeth’s all tell lies, mostly about the men who impregnated them. Rose refuses to give Cecelia the personal information she craves, depriving her of grandparents and other relatives. Son loves his adopted daughter so much he cannot bear to tell her she is not his biological daughter.

What about St. Elizabeth? Per Wikipedia, Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias were a faithful, honorable couple who grew old without a son. Then their prayers were answered. Elizabeth’s cousin Mary conceived Jesus who was born after Elizabeth’s son John (the Baptist). Elizabeth is revered in both the Christian and Muslim traditions.

Elizabeth confirmed to Mary that her son was divinely conceived. So St. Elizabeth is the comforter of young, pregnant girls. The girls waiting out their “inconvenient” pregnancies hope and pray that their children will end up in the  hands of someone like Elizabeth, a wise, kind woman who fervently wants a child.

What can be said about Rose? She caused an incredible amount of pain. Having left her gentle, kind husband, she has the strength to wrest from St. Elizabeth’s an unheard of outcome – marriage and parenthood. She accepts a limited, quiet life at St. Elizabeth’s, then bolts again many years later when her first husband finds her. Cecelia, with a strength beyond her years, gives up on finding out about her heritage and turns her eyes to the future.

What makes this book engrossing? There’s such a contrast between the constant flow of pregnant girls who arrive, gestate and surrender their babies and the static quality of St. Elizabeth’s, where the same few nuns and small staff labor in a setting that almost never changes. There are references to the “outside world”, but they are few.

Sister Evangeline (whose viewpoint we are not offered) seems to be a reincarnation of St. Elizabeth. She is old and kind and has second sight, which gets her into trouble. She is very much loved.

This is a very fine novel, and certainly qualifies as “literary fiction”.