Tag Archives: Book Reviews

Annotated Dracula (part 2)

(Below is a revised re-post from February 14, 2010, Adventures in Fiction.)

‘…Oh, but I am grateful to you, you so clever woman. Madam’—he said this very solemnly—’if ever Abraham Van Helsing can do anything for you or yours, I trust you will let me know. It will be pleasure and delight if I may serve you as a friend…all I have ever learned, all I can ever do, shall be for you and those you love. There are darknesses in life, and there are lights; you are one of the lights. You will have happy life and good life, and your husband will be blessed in you.’

In the last installment concerning this topic (part 1 can be read here), I expressed my doubts that Bram Stoker was making any sort of point about female sexuality in his classic horror novel.

Of all the commentary presented in the edition of Dracula I read, the material I can most readily accept as being part of Stoker’s intentional vision for the material is the inclusion of possible jabs concerning the tensions between Ireland and England*. As a writer, I have included names or versions of events that are jokes or jabs or homages, and it’s kinda fun when a reader recognizes them, too, and tells me so.

But over-analyzing the work of a long-dead author can lead us in directions he or she never intended. And he or she, being dead, cannot correct our errors.

I find it interesting that no mention was made to the Biblical allusion in the above dialogue from Van Helsing, which also later includes this:

‘Your husband is noble nature, and you are noble too, for you trust, and trust cannot be where there is mean nature.’

The Biblical reference that came to mind when I read this passage is found in Proverbs 31, verses 28 and 29:

Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”

Funny. Among all the other bits of trivia, historical references, suggestions of repressed sexuality, that didn’t make it into Valente’s notes at the back of the book.

Euripides, a Greek playwright from way back, said this: “Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.” So, I’m questioning.

Valente also asserts that, since Dracula casts no reflection in a mirror, he doesn’t really exist.

The notion of the immortal count being only a projection of one’s inhibitions or subconscious desires doesn’t stand. After all, Stoker writes that Dracula has been around for centuries before the novel’s characters meet him, and he has been served by the gypsies for generations. Sounds pretty corporeal to me.

Valente states in the notes, “The manner of Dracula’s death tends to confirm his status as a psychic emanation rather than an autonomous being.”

Uh, you sure about that? He crumbles into dust. As in “from dust we were made, to dust we shall return.” Again, sounds pretty corporeal to me.

There is also an argument made that blood in the novel can be seen as a metaphor for racism i.e. “bad blood” that is undesirable for mixing with one of pure blood.* That, and the fact that Dracula is proud of his varied and warrior heritage. I can sorta see that idea (refer to my above remark about the conflict between Irish and English, that is referenced subtly in the book), but it has the look of reaching about it; as if, once again, more is being read into Stoker’s words than he may have intended.**

— to be continued —

* The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonization by Stephen D. Arata (1990)

** “I Would Be Master Still”: Dracula as the Aftermath of the Wilde Trials and the Irish Land League Policies (2002) by Tanya Olson at thirdspace, a journal of feminist theory and culture. The article suggests Stoker may have been homosexual, and that the character of Jonathan Harker was also homosexual and functioned as Stoker’s stand-in.

Of Further Interest:
Tales of Woe and Wonder by Jeff Chapman, an excellent anthology of nine sideways stories, including “The Princess and the Vampire”, a tale of princess who decides to take a vampire for a lover.

Annotated Dracula (part 1)

(Below is a revised re-post from Adventures in Fiction blog by Keanan Brand, January 27 and February 7, 2010.)

‘You are early to-night, my friend.’ The man stammered in reply: —
‘The English Herr was in a hurry,’ to which the stranger replied: —
‘That is why, I suppose, you wished him to go on to Bukovina. You cannot deceive me, my friend; I know too much, and my horses are swift.’ As he spoke he smiled, the lamplight fell on a hard-looking mouth, with very red lips and sharp-looking teeth, as white as ivory. One of my companions whispered to another the line from Burger’s ‘Lenore’: —
‘Denn die Todten reiten schnell.’ —
(‘For the dead travel fast.’)

I picked up a copy of Bram Stoker’s classic novel after I finished NaNoWriMo 2009 (during which I worked more on what’s probably my darkest effort to date), and re-acquainted myself with one of the foundational vampire tales. Dracula is far removed from the modern re-imaginings of the mythology — and, strange as this may seem, it was refreshing.

Anybody else tired of hearing about Bella and Edward and whoever else they hang with? Anybody else look with a canted eye at Buffy and Angel?

But the suckers — ahem — critters have populated frightening tales for centuries, and I don’t expect them to leave anytime soon.

On occasion, I participate in the CSFF Blog Tour, which has featured modern vampire novels: Shade by John Olson, and Haunt of Jackals by Eric Wilson. (My blog posts about each can be found here: Shade 1, 2, 3 and Jackals 1, 2, 3.) Both books are in series, and are different takes on the mythology. Shade presents more of a “psychic vampire” image without the traditional blood-letting, but Jackals is much more graphic and offers a twist on the ability of vampires to shape-shift.

I read those books, sampled some television series (those mentioned above, also Forever Knight and Moonlight), listened to teenagers — and even adults — rave about the Twilight books and films, and experienced the strange sensation of being lost, of being pressed under the weight of all those versions and the various leaps (or chasms) in logic that made me unable to suspend disbelief for long, if at all.

Dracula coverSo I went back to what many might consider source material: Bram Stoker‘s Dracula. He was not the first to cover this ancient ground (other well-known stories include Polidori‘s The Vampyre, and Le Fanu‘s Carmilla), but he is very likely the most well-known and most-referenced author of vampire fiction. The copy I chose is the Simon & Schuster Enriched Classics edition, with notes and commentary by Joseph Valente, a Professor of English.

[Though I enjoy books in which such additional information helps provide historical, social, political, or religious context, or discusses why something may have been important or overlooked by characters in the book, and so on, I sometimes wonder how much of the commentary is really just the commentator’s twisting of the text to fit an opinion, and how much is straight-forward observation of the material.]

Vampires and sex, an age-old coupling. The reasons are obvious: attacks that happen at night, usually on victims who are of the opposite gender to the vampires doing the attacking, and (in Dracula the novel) after the victims are in bed. And there’s the whole neck-biting schtick—which, as we all know, is more than a flirty little nibble.

There’s a lot of writing out there concerning vampirism and Victorian views of sexuality, and there’s a realm of scholarship that sees Dracula the character as freeing women sexually while Van Helsing, et al, try to suppress them. And, though the women seek help from their friends and send up prayers to God, they are drawn to the immortal count because their subconscious supposedly really, really wants him.

While such arguments might be made, there’s not much in the novel itself to support them. Yeah, vampires may work their mojo, but they’re presented as evil, and not all that sexy. Sensual, maybe, but not freeing. They’re rapists—even the females. After all, rape isn’t about sex or mutual expression or love. It’s about power and control.

Dracula controls Lucy. He controls Mina. Neither woman wants what he’s offering, and the men do what they can to stop him. Sure, they make some bonehead mistakes, like leaving Mina alone while they scout the count’s London digs, but I never get the impression they are trying to suppress either woman. In fact, Mina and Jonathan seem quite happy with their marriage. Until Dracula gets involved, of course.

to be continued

UPDATE: Last year, I read John Whalen’s excellent Western twist on vampires, Vampire Siege at Rio Muerto. You can read my review of his well-received novel here.

Scam, Hard Sell, or Good Intentions?

This morning, I visited Writer Beware blog, and read a post about “editors” taking advantage of self-published e-book authors by telling them their books are full of errors and then pushing their editorial services. I had no idea that such a scam was going on, and then realized that I may have come across as a creep a year or so ago when I offered to edit an error-riddled but excellent book by a fellow editor and writing mentor.

I contacted the author, told her I loved the book but was concerned about the errors, and offered to do the work for free. She sent me the document, I did the work, and it was all back to her within a day (short book). She’s a colleague. I couldn’t not help her present her best work to the world.

I have no idea if she ever took my advice or incorporated any of those edits. She thanked me, and that’s the last I heard. It’s very likely her pride was stung or she was suspicious of me. Who knows?

Recently, the reverse happened when someone asked to be a beta reader for my novel. Despite my telling him that 1) I wanted reader feedback, not editing, and 2) I am also an editor, he tore into the first few chapters and took me to task for story issues that didn’t exist (he’d skimmed the book and made assumptions about the rest), told me the book would only be successful if it were properly edited, and then reminded me a few times that he had a website and an editing service. I thanked him for his “help”, and ended our association.

There are scams and con artists and folks just giving the hard sell — everyone needs to make a living — but there are also well-intentioned people, too, who want to see other people succeed. Sometimes it’s difficult to know who’s a mere actor and who will actually deliver.

I hope my fellow writers and editors can rely on me for “the real deal”.

_______________________________

Of potential interest:
Writing Your Novel Your Way (interview/blog post)
Elements of Plot: A Personalized Approach by Terri Main
Power Elements of Story Structure by Rebecca Luella Miller
“Top 10 Storytelling Cliches Writers Need to Stop Using” by Rob Hart

The Purpose of Fantasy

ThePurposeofFantasyThis is a good book.

I could end my review right there and still have told the complete truth, but that wouldn’t tell you why or what, or how you can acquire your own copy of this useful, soon-to-be essential, little volume.

The WHAT and the WHO: The Purpose of Fantasy: A Reader’s Guide to Twelve Selected Books with Good Values & Spiritual Depth by Philip Martin. I met Phil many years ago at a writing conference in Oklahoma City, back when he still worked as the acquisitions editor for The Writer Books. He’d recently published the first edition of A Guide to Fantasy Literature (now revised and with a new cover, although I much prefer the dragon on my copy!). Since then, he has formed his own publishing house, as well as offering consulting and mentoring services for fellow writers.

The WHY:

As a writer of fantasy and science fiction, I have defended my chosen genres to writers who deem them lower forms of literature, as pop-lit or pulp fiction. (Well, I ask, doesn’t the “pop” in pop-lit mean the form is popular? There must be a reason for that.) Fantasy has been and will always be a viable and powerful literary form, and Philip Martin is its apologist:

Fantasy is different from other types of fiction. It is a wonderful approach to storytelling, and “wonderful” here means literally full of wonder. Unfortunately, it is often used in a very small-minded sense to segregate off a small type of adventure fantasy into a sub-genre, a ghetto of bookstores and libraries, where you mostly find books with sword-wielding barbarians, bushy-eyebrowed wizards wearing star-studded gowns, Arthurian knights galloping across medieval countrysides, perhaps a castle in the background, perhaps a scaly dragon sailing overhead, perhaps a warty, axe-wielding ogre lurking in the shrubbery. But fantasy is far more than this. Fantasy combines wonder and whimsy with a richly non-rational, spiritual, philosophical look at matters such as good and evil…Someone said that the difficult thing about fiction is that it has to make sense. Fantasy makes sense, but it doesn’t show us reality. It shows us an inner truth, without any need to be any more real than an occasionally invisible hobbit with hairy toes. (Kindle locations 134-150) (emphasis mine)

Martin goes on to say, “At their core, fantasy stories are about what we believe about some matter of spiritual beliefs; they tackle core issues of good and evil, and how we should deal with it all” (Kindle locations 155-156).

Amen, brother! Preach it!

But this is not a religious book, nor is it a book of faith, but a discussion of how the spiritual is illustrated by and becomes accessible because of fantasy literature.

The HOW:

His three criteria for choosing the twelve books included in The Purpose of Fantasy:

  1. They had to be really entertaining.
  2. They had to be worth rereading.
  3. They had to be worth discussing.

As a result, and without prior design, most of the books that made the cut are generally marketed to children.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” Albert Einstein said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” (This may apply to adults as well.) What is clear is that the foundations of a person’s moral character are strongly shaped by influences and lessons absorbed in childhood. And the two things that fantasy is most about – imagination and issues of right/ wrong – are naturally in rich abundance in children’s books and stories. (Kindle locations 234-240)

However, the questions raised and the themes throughout are decidedly the realm of adults.

Some writers of fantasy have been quite annoyed to see their stories labeled as “for children.” These authors included the great fabulist Hans Christian Andersen, who insisted “my tales were just as much for older people as for children, who only understood the outer trappings and did not comprehend and take in the whole work until they were mature.” (Kindle locations 274-276)

Again, the WHAT (the books Martin discusses in The Purpose of Fantasy):

Momo by Michael Ende
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
The Rope Trick by Lloyd Alexander
Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

Reading this book was a joy. It reacquainted me with beloved books I haven’t read since childhood, and nudged me to become friends with books that have long been on my “to read” list. (I first learned of Momo from a popular South Korean television series, My Lovely Sam Soon, aka My Name is Kim Sam-Soon, and have been wanting to read it ever since.)

For me, there is a danger in reading interesting books that are also well-written. When I find something I like, something that speaks to me or draws me in, I will blitz through it. I skip across the water rather than immersing in it. This time, however, I read slowly, as Martin recommends we do when perusing the stories he suggests. Savor them, ponder them, ask their questions of ourselves. Feel the wonder.

Fantasy’s gift is to allow us to see our own world in a state of surprise and grace. (Kindle locations 475-476)

Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes in The Little Prince,

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

But fantasy is more than the fantastic or the spiritual. In the chapter titled “Is Fantasy Subversive?”, Martin opens with this statement:

 Some authors have seen fantasy as a good way to introduce a type of creative questioning, one that can shake up, or sneak by, a conventional perception. (Kindle locations 492-493)

And bolsters it with this:

Ursula Le Guin wrote that some adults are uneasy with fantasy’s inconvenient tendency to reveal truths – to tell stories in which emperors have no clothes. (Kindle locations 504-505)

I grew up in a strict church that, despite its words, seemed more concerned with appearances than with truth, and eschewed obvious sins while indulging in the more subtle, more insidious sin of pride. I was that kid who stirred up controversy by pointing out what was, to me, as plain as sunshine: There’s something wrong. There’s a disconnect between what they said they believed and how they behaved.

One of the teachings declared that most fiction was useless and even sinful, because it was lies. However, as a voracious reader, I consumed fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, fairy tales, folklore, and the like, as well as the many stories in the Bible, and gained much from them all. In a Native American folktale, I might learn about wise choices, which backed up a concept I might have learned in Sunday School or heard preached from the pulpit. In an African fable, the evil of lying might be reinforced.

Martin asks,

Do stories question authority? How often, for instance, do stories and books for young readers contain dunder-headed or threatening adults? Does that mean that those stories are anti-adult? More accurately, they encourage young readers to think twice, and compare what they see in real life to those fictional tales. (Kindle locations 576-578)

It’s not important which church I grew up in, or what I observed. It’s important that I read widely and asked the questions. Eventually, I came to see value in much of what I was taught, because it was true and solid and a good guide for life. However, there is also much I abandoned as untrue and harmful.

For a time when I was in elementary school and junior high, there was a fear among the adults who knew me that I would mix up reality and fantasy, that the fiction that so enthused me would overtake my reason or my faith. When I wearied of defending myself and the books, I hid them behind more acceptable volumes, read them under the covers, sat in secluded corners.

The key to opening the mind is to be able to imagine something else, to ask “what if.” But “what if” does not answer questions. It simply creates a portal, an opening to build the structure of a story on top of those questions…Minds of young readers are not so malleable or gullible that they swallow everything they read or are toldFantasy stories raise the question of Truth. But they don’t create it, and readers know that, because the worlds of fantasy are so clearly invented. Even more so than all the other branches of fiction, they are impossible worlds. (Kindle Locations 587-603) (emphasis mine)

It seems I cannot write a book review without applying it to my own life. That’s a good thing, perhaps, because it shows how well the book relates to me. Is it true? Interesting? Vital? Engaging? Well-written? The Purpose of Fantasy is all those and more. I recommend this book to writers and readers everywhere, especially those who see the wonder beyond the skin of the world.

Martin concludes the “Is Fantasy Subvervise?” chapter thus:

The solution, in a fantasy book, often comes from the smallest one who asks the biggest questions. (Kindle locations 608-609)

What’s your question?

*  ~  *  ~  *  ~  *

In addition to being an excellent and engaging writer, Martin is also an editor, mentor, and publisher. He’s the founder of Great Lakes Literary and its two imprints, Crickhollow Books and Crispin Books. Martin is blogging about the books he explores in The Purpose of Fantasy ( Mary Poppins, for instance), and readers are invited to join the conversation. Readers can also visit the Crickhollow Books page on Facebook.

One last note: Check out that awesome cover art! It’s called “Looking for a Good Book” and is by Greg Newbold. You can check out more of his work on his site.

Matthew, Mark, Luke — and Dickens?

What if the innkeeper in Bethlehem had been named Ebenezer?

What if, like his Dickensian counterpart, he was a miser?

What if he met the Holy Family and turned them away — not because there was no room at the inn, but because the price of the room was too high for Joseph to pay?

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The First Christmas Carol: A Miser, a Manger, a Miracle by Marianne Jordan is a brief, powerful book combining classic elements of A Christmas Carol with the Biblical account of the Nativity to form a fresh-yet-familiar story.

Ebenezer turned and stepped through the doorway, his elbow brushing against the mezuzah hanging on the frame. Like the one at his home, it had been a fixture of the inn since its construction.And like the one in his home, the mezuzah was severely cracked and chipped. It was amazing it remained attached at all. Ebenezer refused to fix either. To repair them would have been an unnecessary expense.

Most Jews who came through the door automatically reached to kiss the small scripture casing, only to find pieces crumble in their hands. Ebenezer had all but forgotten it was even there, but now the disintegrating symbol caught his attention.The small indentation appeared to be the image of a woman’s face.

Was that—? No, it couldn’t be.

He squeezed his eyes and shook his head, slinging drops of sweat around him. When he looked again, the silhouette had disappeared. He tilted closer, running his fingers over the fissures. Impossible.

Ebenezer’s old partner, Jacob, is dead, but that just means more money for Eb. He’s reveling in the census, because that means more travelers coming to his inn. He ratchets up the prices. Who’ll complain? It’s not like they have a choice.

Just as Scrooge was visited by three ghosts sent by Jacob Marley, the innkeeper is visited by three angels announced by Gabriel. And, just as Scrooge was forever changed by revisiting his past, experiencing otherwise unknown aspects of his present, and seeing his future if he doesn’t alter his ways, so too is Ebenezer powerfully affected by similar journeys to different moments in his life.

He is especially unsettled by his encounters with a young teacher — the man that the infant being born in his stable becomes.

As the rabbi turned to resume his walk, he looked at Ebenezer. It happened every time the innkeeper was in the man’s presence. Ebenezer shivered. Could the man see him? There were even times when Ebenezer thought the teacher was speaking specifically to him.

“The more lowly your service to others, the greater you are. To be the greatest, be a servant. Those who think themselves great shall be disappointed and humbled, and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”

Ebenezer and the silent angel of the future follow the rabbi all the way to his crucifixion. Ebenezer sees the empty tomb, but instead of gaining hope, he despairs, broken by deep realization of his unworthiness.

He is returned to the present, and goes to the stable in time to join the shepherds and others gathered there to worship the infant Savior. Hope returns, and the innkeeper will never be the same.

His heart is not the only one that needs opening. Interwoven with Ebenezer’s story is that of his assistant, Aaron, who is also changed the fateful night he and his family helps Joseph find lodging and Mary give birth.

Full disclosure: I edited this book. From the moment is was assigned to me, I was intrigued by the premise, and enjoyed watching this book change and tighten and gain power. I believe that reading The First Christmas Carol alongside the Book of Luke would make an excellent addition to family Christmas traditions, and I will be adding this book to my personal library.

The First Christmas Carol is available as an e-book (Kindle) and in paperback.

BONUS: Enter to win a Kindle Fire!

For Independent (Self-Published) Authors

A fellow writer and blogger, Sandy Appleyard, asked this on LinkedIn, regarding independent (self-published) authors: “Has the bar been lowered?”

One person commented that the bar is easy “to reach if you’re the one holding it.” Indeed.

Appleyard expanded further on her blog:

This past summer, however, I started reviewing strictly indie authors, simply to help them out and to gain more perspective in the indie world.  In a nutshell, as an indie author myself, I have found book reviewing to be a very positive experience, and it has helped my writing career a lot.

What’s disappointing is the amount of less-than-great independently published books that I’ve stumbled upon recently.

Here is a short list of the issues I’ve seen:

-Grammatical/spelling

-lack dialogue

-too much back story

-not enough action

-un-relatable characters and/or story line

When I read these less-than-great stories, I feel like rather than reviewing them, I need to provide a beta read and an edit.  Are indie authors neglecting to take these vital steps?

Susan McBeth, founder of Adventures By The Book, responded with a concern about professionalism:

As an author events coordinator, I am frequently asked to host events for authors with self-published books. I am amazed when I read the books, how poorly edited many of them are (strictly speaking from the ones I’ve reviewed, not to judge all). I recently read a book that I would have considered for an event because the writing was very good, and the story was compelling an innovative, but I just couldn’t get past the fact that it didn’t appear to have been edited, and as a professional who prides my business with quality events, I want to ensure the product I am featuring is professional.

She’s right to be concerned. Not only is the author’s reputation at stake, but so is hers.

By the way, for writers living in or near Southern California, McBeth has begun The Author Academy, workshops to train authors in marketing. (I live a few states away. sigh)

My two cents’ worth:

I’m a freelance editor as well as an associate editor for a publisher, but I was a freelancer first, and have always set a high bar for my clients. Whether or not they choose to rise to meet it is entirely their choice. I do my best for them, and then they submit their work wherever they will.

As an editor for a publisher, though, the circumstances are different: A contract has been signed, and now I must help the author polish his work for public display. Still, I encounter authors who don’t seem to realize that, yes, there’s still work to be done. A contract doesn’t mean a pat on the head, all is well, the work is perfect, and all the editor has to do is fix a few commas and grammatical errors. No, there are often major story overhauls and dialogue fixes, et cetera.

Even then, authors dig in their heels, revert corrected sentences to their original incorrect state (dangling/misplaced modifiers are a huge problem), refuse to insert a necessary scene or do the proper research into an industry about which they know nothing, and so on. It can be right warlike, trying to edit the book of an entrenched, recalcitrant author who deems his work perfect and my work meddling.

On the other hand, there is real joy in editing a writer who has already done much of the work, and submits a manuscript with clean copy, good story pacing and flow, dialogue that contributes to the story rather than stagnates on the page, and has considered every word’s right to be there. That means the author is a self-editor, and knows how to be strict with his work, and is therefore able to take the advice of another editor.

And, yes, I’ve encountered many self-published books similar in state to the ones described in your blog, Sandy. I wish authors could take a few steps back, release their “babies” into someone else’s arms, and open their minds to honest feedback — before publication. Perhaps they don’t realize that those nagging misspellings or a saggy middle or the anti-climatic climax really are big problems. Readers won’t just overlook them, nor will they be likely to forget. The next time they encounter a book by an author who disappointed them, they’ll pass.

Independent authors, don’t be afraid of feedback. Welcome it.

Honest critiques by beta readers are worth more than money, and you don’t have to pay for them. Beta readers have an objective point of view that you, as the author, do not. They’ll help you find plot holes, flat dialogue, forgotten plot threads, weak scenes, and much more. Not only will they find problems, they’ll provide solutions.

Hire a freelance (independent) editor. Seriously. Save up the money, no matter how long it takes, and hire an editor skilled in editing your type of book (novel, memoir, reference, et cetera). Ask for references or editing samples, establish a good rapport, and let the editor have at your manuscript. Nothing beats a well-edited novel.

If one or more of your beta readers is also skilled at grammar, spelling, punctuation, and such, they’ll likely find and point out many nitpicky errors as they read. This is helpful, especially if it’ll be a while before you can afford to hire that editor.

Writing can be a lonely business. If you have no close support system — a writers group, for instance — several can be found online via an Internet search. I belong to a couple, but don’t use them as much as I thought I might. Actually, I’m on the hunt for a group in my town or in a nearby community, and have considered posting signs, seeing if any hidden writers will join me in starting a new group. Just as honest beta readers are priceless, so is a solid group of writers who can critique and encourage one another toward excellence.

Questions or comments? I’m happy to help where I may.

Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations

51ct7umFcIL._SY346_Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations is a memoir that reads like a coming-of-age novel about two young girls who meet while music students, then reconnect as adults when their former teacher’s younger daughter goes missing.

The authors, Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky, are a journalist and a violinist, respectively, and Kupchynsky is the elder daughter of the aforementioned “one tough teacher”, and the sister of the missing young woman, Stephanie, who also grew up to become a music teacher.

I love music. I love singing, and plinking around on the piano or strumming a guitar, but I’m good at neither singing nor playing. The lessons I took as a child and a teenager were minimal, offered by kindhearted folks at church, or by persevering teachers at school. I was that student who thought she wanted to be better, but never had enough perseverance or patience to actually put for the effort to be better.

Writing and storytelling, however—those I did want to improve. Hours passed before I realized, especially if a writing session was going well, or if I was absorbed in studying or researching, or simply reading for entertainment. I didn’t need someone standing over me with a stern look, a stick, and an eye for the clock, because I was motivated all by myself.

But what happens when uncertain, shy, and even seemingly untalented students encounter a loud, particular, demanding teacher who is determined—by shout, by thwack, and by sparing praise—that they are going to succeed?

Mr. K’s subject, of course, was music. But the lessons he taught his students are universal: about resilience, and the power of optimism, and achieving success. And about humor, too, not that he was necessarily trying to be funny.

It’s hard to imagine a Mr. K in today’s world. Parents would be outraged; administrators would be pressured to fire him. Yet he was remarkably effective. His methods raise the big issues we grapple with now ourselves, as parents. Are we too soft on our kids? How do we best balance discipline with praise? How hard do we really want our kids’ teachers to push them? And if our kids do complain, how do we know when—or if—to interfere?

The latest research on kids and motivation, it turns out, comes down squarely in Mr. K’s corner. Recent studies show that overpraising kids makes them less confident and less motivated.

One study of fifth-graders—kids the same age as Mr. K’s beginning string students—is especially striking. Psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues divided the children into two groups and gave each a simple test. One group was then praised for being smart, and the other for effort. The result? The “smart” kids became far less confident, while the group praised for hard work became more confident, performed better, and in subsequent tests was eager to take on more challenging tests.

“The whole point of intelligence praise is to boost confidence and motivation, but both were gone in a flash,” Dweck noted… “If success meant they were smart, then struggling meant they were not.”

The concept that hard work trumps innate ability is at the core of current thinking about business success, too…

…(R)eal experts don’t want soft teachers: They want tough ones. Unsentimental ones. Ones who give them “painful” feedback.

We couldn’t imagine a more accurate description of Mr. K. (Foreward, xv-xvi)

Back in the 1970s and 80s, I was one of those kids praised for intelligence rather than effort, and came to equate difficulty with failure or stupidity. Or, horror of horrors, no talent.

…(T)o Mr. K, there was no such thing as an untalented kid—just a kid who didn’t work hard enough. You are going to fix this problem, he said when he diagnosed whatever was wrong, and there was never any question. Of course you would. It was just a matter of trying and trying and trying some more. He yelled, not because we’d never learn, but because he was absolutely certain that we would. (p83)

Joanne comes from a nice, middle-class family that Melanie envies, while Melanie grows up with an invalid mother and a driven father, who essentially becomes a single parent when his ailing wife can no longer live at home. She plays piano, and he violin, and he passes that skill to their daughters—whether they want to learn or not.

As for his school students, well, they adapt—sometimes humorously. Once, in his Ukrainian accent, he denounces the group’s “cheeken plocking”, and a rubber chicken flies from the back and lands at the podium.

One day, Joanne’s parents drag her to a recital. She’d rather go to the fair or read Harriet the Spy.

I yawned and fidgeted in my seat as the first few groups played, daydreaming about frozen custard and Ferris wheels. But I was jolted back to reality by a commotion on the stage. Mr. K was clomping across the floor—my, could he do anything without making a racket?—looking for something. I watched as he noisily dragged over a podium to the center of the stage.

(The) quartet drifted out from the wings: three teenage girls and Melanie, Mr. K’s daughter. Melanie was wearing a smock dress and shiny black shoes with ankle socks…Melanie’s red hair was even shorter than mine, and her jagged bangs looked the way mine did that time I got hold of my mother’s scissors and started snipping away… .

Melanie was tiny, so it was a good thing she had the podium to stand on. Hauling herself up the two big steps and positioning herself on the top of the box, she lifted her little violin with a theatrical flourish. The other violinists looked toward her expectantly. Michele, who so easily lorded her authority and wisdom over me at home, was gazing at this little girl with respect. She sure never looked at me that way. (pp 58-57)

Eventually, Joanne braves Mr. K’s furious methods, learns the viola, and joins the quartet, playing with Melanie and her sister, Stephanie, who plays the violin.

Melanie recalls a performance:

I can feel how nervous Steph is. She and Joanne play alone for the first few notes. Steph’s bow is wobbling. I suck in my breath and hold it, trying to will her to be calm.

…(M)y dad is right. We are ready, and after the first few measures we settle in to doing what we have done so many times before. The music flows. The audience seems to recede into its seats, and even my dad fades into the background. We stop thinking about the crowd and focus on the music and on one another. I only have to nod slightly, or glance up from the music to lock eyes for a millisecond with the other girls, and we all lean in to the music, or play softer or louder, or dig in to a passage together. We really are breathing together. We really do feel the music as if we share one brain…

When we get to the end of the piece, we all exhale at once. This is something none of us has experienced before, a secret bond that we’re sure nobody else can understand. The audience is cheering, but it barely matters to us…

When it’s all over, my dad hugs each one of us in turn. He plants a kiss on Stephanie’s cheek…”Go celebrate,” he says. “You earned it.” (pp98-9)

Praise from Mr. K is rare, subdued. When “Again!” and a thwack across misaligned fingers is common, a nod, a quiet “pretty good”, is enough. More than progress, it means a job well done.

When he chooses a difficult Brahms piece, Joanne wonders what he could possibly be thinking.

What made him think his orchestra was up to snuff to perform a piece better suited to college symphonies and the New York Philharmonic? (p103)

But she and her sisters gather their instruments and go to the practice room to warm up before the performance. The other quartet members are there, too, but scattered throughout the room as the orchestra struggles to play in time with one another.

“Quartet weel demonstrate proper way to play,” he announced. “Girls, you play.”

The hair on my arms stood up strait. My heart dropped to somewhere in my bowels…

The four of us timidly tried the passage. We were used to looking to Melanie to give us a nod to start, and then to each other as we played. But the other girls were nowhere in my line of sight. As we started to play, they sounded impossibly far away…The notes came out all wrong, the timing out of sync. My heartbeat sounded louder to me than my own playing.

Mr. K scowled. “Again!”

Tentatively, we tried it once more. I was so nervous that my bow skittered along the strings. Melanie sounded louder, more insistent this time, as she tried to lead…from the other side of the room. You could tell the rest of us were straining to follow.

“Again!”

I took a deep breath, mustered my courage, and attacked. This time, the four of us cut through the silence in the rehearsal room with a precision I had no idea I was capable of. Mr. K glanced at the high schoolers arrayed in front of him with a look of satisfaction. “Like that,” was all he said. (p104)

The orchestra wins competitions, as do individual musicians, and Mr. K is acknowledged as an effective instructor. He takes his students to nursing homes, and they play at events, even at the funeral of a classmate.

Generations pass. Those early students grow up and send their children to be taught by him.

Then, one busy work day at The Wall Street Journal, Joanne receives a call. Mr. K. His younger daughter, Stephanie, is missing.

She never misses lessons with her violin students. Where is she? Is she even alive?

How do her family, friends, former classmates deal with life with that terrible question hanging unresolved?

Her mother dies before it is answered. Now elderly and retired from teaching in public school, Mr. K remarries, moves down the street, gardens, teaches a few private students, and compiles a book of poetry written in Ukrainian.

Life moves on, only to be interrupted again, this time by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Then Mr. K dies.

Gathered to perform at his funeral, former students try to polish rusty skills while exchanging reminiscences.

Joanna:

Across the room I spotted my old classmate Ted Kesler, the boy whom Mr. K picked on so relentessly, who sat at the back of the first violin section. When I thought back to Mr. K at his toughest, Ted always came to mind. I could still see Mr. K forcing him to play alone—”Again! Again!”—while the rest of the kids in the orchestra watched. Ted was a college professor of education now. We greeted each other warmly, but I was puzzled. Why show up for a teacher who tortured him so?

“In some ways, Mr. K was a terrible match for me,” he readily conceded.

But then Ted told me something I didn’t know when we were kids. His mother had died when he was in grade school, before he moved to East Brunswick. His father was a Holocaust survivor who was raising for children on his own; other family members had perished in concentration camps. Mr. K showed his father a respect, a deference, that you didn’t see with the other parents. “Mr. K was hard on me in part because I was lost and aimless and unguided,” Ted said. “You know, he wanted more from me.” What’s more, “the orchestra kept me connected within a community,” he said. “It sustained me. All of those musicians in the group effort kept pushing me forward…That kept me going: the collaborative energy.” (p309)

Mr. K was a youth in Ukraine during World War II. He knew what Ted’s father had survived, and he knew what Ted could overcome.

On his way home one afternoon, he heard something that stopped him cold: the sound of a violin. He was transfixed. The music wafted through an open window and to the street below where he stood, motionless. Inside, a German soldier—one of the occupying forces—was practicing.

The music transported Jarema [Mr. K’s first name]. It took him away from the war, away from the death surrounding him, away from the uncertainty that was his future. It opened up, instead, a world infused with beauty. The music filled him with so much joy that it pushed out the darkness. Jarema yearned to play the instrument, too. It was a revelation, these melodies that lifted him up and chased the demons away. It was an escape. It sparked in him an almost spiritual belief in the power of music to heal.

“I want to learn the violin,” he told his mother.

“You will,” she said. “We will get you lessons.”

She was never able to deliver.

One day, the window was closed. There was no music. There never would be again. The soldier was gone; to another posting or to his death, Jarema would never know for sure. (pp256-7)

Ted was right. Mr. K understood better than anyone the bond music creates among people who play it together. Beyond his bluster—and behind his wicked sense of humor and taste for Black Russians—perhaps that was his lesson all along. (p310)

On sale October 1, 2013, Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations is a story of survival and understanding, perseverance and courage, and most of all love—love for music, love for country, love for a tough teacher who accepted nothing less than the best. It’s recommended reading, not just for teachers or musicians, but also for anyone from any career field or walk of life.

I finished reading this book several days before attempting a review, but the impact is such that, even now, I’m letting the book speak for itself. Although my copy is an ARC (advanced reader copy) with a paperback binding covered in quotes and information rather than the nice image of the final published copy, and although this ARC has spelling errors and missing punctuation, it will remain in my library. After all, just as Mr. K didn’t have the distinguished manner one associates with an orchestra conductor, this book may not have a pretty cover, but what matter is the music, not the face.

The Poo Hitteth the Fan

I love books. However, due to being an editor, when I read for pleasure and not work, I don’t necessarily finish every book I attempt. Call me jaded. I won’t argue.

When I was younger, my mother scolded me for having too many novels stacked by the bed, bookmarks sticking out, because she said I started more projects than I finished. That was a valid concern. But I was voracious and not very discriminating: If a book was even remotely interesting, it was read. Or, at the very least, it was skimmed for the good parts.

Recently, I posted a review of a novel that shall remain nameless. It isn’t a glowing review, as many of them are, yet despite being in the minority, it isn’t the only review to point out a glaring fact: Although the artwork and premise of the book are good, the writing is not.

I don’t make a habit of posting negative reviews, and I generally have to feel strongly one way or the other (positively or negatively) before reviewing anything. In this instance, I really wanted to like this book. It had been talked up and marketed, and the artwork is fantastic, so I opened up the book in anticipation of a great ride.

Disillusion in the first paragraph.

But I kept going.

As the pages piled up, so did my disappointment.

I would have let the matter lie, and just walked away in search of something else to read, but this particular author and his enthusiasts acknowledge and even defend the poor writing while extolling the virtues of the overall story. After all, they say, many bestsellers aren’t necessarily written well (Twilight and Harry Potter have been cited to me several times, as if they are the standard).

There was a time, years ago in my wide-eyed youth, when I might have joined their parade, and berated any ol’ jaded editor for being hung up on the sentences and missing the big picture.

Now, though, after years on the other side of the writing and publishing biz, I thoroughly understand the need for the writer to take pride in his own work first. After all, if he doesn’t, why should anyone else? Why should an editor fix all his mistakes?

“Yes, but that’s your job,” you say.

Agreed. An editor’s purpose is to help a writer shape and polish his work.

It is not my job to pat him on the head and let him get away with crappy writing just because his noggin is chock-full of cool ideas.

Below are excerpts from my original review, as well as a brief exchange with one of the author’s fans who is not pleased with what I wrote. (Excerpts, because the original exchange is rather long.)

Me:

The artwork is fantastic, and this book appears to have an enthusiastic audience, which bodes well for the author’s future…The story may very well have been as intriguing as all the glowing reviews indicate, but I could not get past the awkwardness/clunkiness of the writing.

Someone else who also attempted reading the book wasn’t bothered by the writing so much as by the execution of the story. When I pressed for more details, this person just handed back the book and said she lost interest after the first few chapters.

Disgruntled Fan:

You are an editor… your job is to find problems with books. Some of the most poorly written novels sell in the millions (Twilight, Harry Potter). This is because the masses are not editors but normal people who enjoy a good story. As someone who works for a competing publisher the ethical move would be to remove this review.

Me:

As for the argument that poorly-written novels are often bestsellers, I have no argument there. They are.

However, it’s not in me to lie about writing quality — to simply go along to get along, because, hey, everyone else seems to like it, so I should just shut up. No, this is my craft, and it matters to me…So when I expect excellence from fellow writers, that’s not unethical or negative. It’s simply a matter of course. After all, I’d much rather walk over the bridge built by the meticulous craftsman than walk over the one constructed by someone content with “good enough”.

Disgruntled Fan:

And as to your craft, is it only to give negative criticism? I was not aware that this was an editor’s job. Is it so hard to find redeeming qualities in a book (granted you only read two pages) when I see a multitude of people making a laundry list of redeeming qualities…(W)hat I read is “Your writing sucks; how did you get published? This was a mistake. Don’t quit your day job.” There was nothing positive and you made it sound like the worst book in the world. I do not want him to quite writing, I loved the story. You mention a bridge that is good enough… But that isn’t what you said. You didn’t say that his novel was good enough. You said that the dung was so rank that you had to walk away before vomiting. (comments truncated due to being more of the same)

Me:

I never said I quit reading after page two (“the first few pages”), nor did I tell the author to quit writing. As a teacher, I would never tell someone to quit writing. And you’re the one who mentioned dung and vomit — not I.

You also seem to be saying that, since I’m an editor, I have no right to an opinion regarding any book, nor should I post a review unless it’s positive. To the contrary, only saying positive things would be unethical, because I wouldn’t be completely honest…I can appreciate a person’s creativity and effort without enjoying how those efforts and creativity are employed.

…I never attacked his creativity or his ability to conjure up intriguing stories. In your first comment, you stated, “Some of the most poorly written novels… .” Seems you already know that the author, while creative in his storytelling, could have spent more time on the way he presented his story. And that, (dear reader), is my original review in a nutshell.

Proverbs 26:4 comes to mind: “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are” (The Bible, New Living Translation).

Just as I don’t often post negative reviews, I don’t often become mired in online debates. I’m not one who enjoys arguing or conflict. What would you have done? Would you have posted any review at all? Would you have let Disgruntled Fan have his/her say, and remained silent?

Death Comes to Pemberley: A Partial Review

200px-CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810)_hiresI’m a Jane Austen fan, ever since I read Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice as a young teenager, and giggled at the subtle, gentle humor of those comedies of manners. Before opening the books, I was warned they might be difficult to understand for readers used to being spoon-fed ideas, so I’d best pay attention.

I did. And I loved them.

Then, in my twenties, I encountered Persuasion, and my first attempt at reading it ended after the first chapter or so: too many commas, as if Austen had found them on sale at a punctuation store, and made free with them all over the page. (Those extraneous commas may have loomed large due to my state of mind at the time rather than any quirk in the writer’s presentation.)

However, a friend had given me the book, despite herself not liking Austen, so I determined to overlook the excess punctuation and finish the story. When I did, I found a lead character with which I could identify, having myself been persuaded despite my heart.

160px-Jane_Austen_signature_from_her_will.svgNow, I own copies of each complete Austen novel, a biography, some of her early writings (fun!), and various incarnations of her stories on film (three versions of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, and two of Persuasion, and have owned up to three copies of Emma, though one has since gone away).

51sBuLT1ZzLAlthough amused at the recent romantic comedy/horror story mash-ups of the novels (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters), I wasn’t intrigued enough to read them, and although many modern writers have created sequels or spinoffs of the original material, I hadn’t read any until checking out a library copy of Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, an author whose mysteries I’ve enjoyed reading on occasion. (She is also the author of a dystopian science fiction novel, The Children of Men, that became a movie starring Clive Owen, and her Adam Dalgliesh novels were adapted for television; I watched them on Mystery! on PBS.)

Happy to have a stack of books to relish, I chose Death Comes to Pemberley as my first course in a literary meal.

The prologue amused, because it mimicked Austen, and I thought, “Well done, Baroness James!”

But then I hit chapter one. Then chapter two. And realized this was neither as scintillating as Jane Austen nor as mysterious as P.D. James, but some strange, bland mess that respected neither the authors nor the source material.

The characters from Pride and Prejudice lost their personalities, and became strangers to the reader, with Darcy and Elizabeth questioning their marriage: Should they have married at all? Did they love one another? Did Elizabeth choose Darcy only for his money?

James seems to have missed the fact that Elizabeth was a great one for irony: she would say the opposite of her true feelings or thoughts on a matter, just to poke fun at herself or to spar with a conversational partner. Therefore, she was not being serious in Pride and Prejudice when she mentioned falling in love with Darcy only after seeing his sumptuous estate.

Before the visit to Pemberley, she also had his letter, revealing some uncomfortable truths as well as making himself plain. I figure that went a long way toward kindling romantic feelings, which were likely present beforehand, although disguised as conflict. (There is a distinct push-pull when one is attracted to someone one believes is not quite acceptable, and Elizabeth and Darcy kept circling one another in social situations, never quite able to not engage.)

So, just those three things — the letter, the pre-existing attraction, and Elizabeth’s character — negate the doubts and second thoughts presented in James’s novel.

There was a distinct lack of suspense about this mystery. There’s no tension, intrigue, or interesting quality in the writing.

I didn’t care that Wickham was accused of murder. I never liked him anyway. He was a scoundrel and cad — as presented in P & P — and therefore why should I care now? Also, and I didn’t like the fact that a likeable, reasonable character (Colonel Fitzwilliam) was being written as the unlikable side of a love triangle, as well as a potential suspect in the murder of another somewhat likeable character (Captain Denney).

I tried liking Death Comes to Pemberley, but could only slog through until several pages after Wickham was found beside Denney’s body, and then I had to admit I was too bored and annoyed to continue reading.

We writers all have times when the words are enemies we fight, or when the stories are mountains we can’t climb with any grace, and I have loved James’s novels in the past. This one book is not the end of that affection. It’s an aberration. I shall not recommend it to other readers, because there are far better examples of her work elsewhere.