Book Review: Tamsin

•24/07/2010 • Leave a Comment

I mentioned a few weeks ago how I struck I was by Peter S. Beagle’s use of detail in his book Tamsin, only 30 pages in. Now that I’ve finished the book (well, last week, but I’ve recently had four wisdom teeth and an additional two back lower molars extracted, so I haven’t really felt like doing anything, much less blog-writing. If you’re interested, they’ve mostly healed up, except for the back lower right socket, which is currently stuffed with something medicated, which tastes overwhelmingly of oil of cloves) I feel the need to gush further about just how great this book was.

It was crammed full of details, believable, beautiful, lush, juicy details. The characterizations were fantastic, quirky enough, and so honestly, achingly* human. But I think that’s Beagle’s trademark, the achingly human. Although, the animals in his novels are often achingly themselves, and that holds true of TLU’s unicorn, the raven from A Fine and Private Place, and Tamsin’s Mister Cat, who reminded me so much at one point of my lost Mango (despite having a rather different personality), that I was sad and weepy for a morning.

I think that is Beagle’s greatest strength: his writing is so familiar to the interior world. The touchstones in his fantastic worlds are personalities, and quirks, and feelings. Like good literature should, I suppose, though it feels snooty to say so.

Tamsin is a ghost, and becomes close friends with our young narrator. Jennifer, 19 in the nebulous present, is writing down these events that occurred when she was 15. This is the supernatural set-up. But there’s a wealth of ‘real’ details that make this fabulous reading, the move from New York to a shabby farm in Dorset, England, all the inter-family politics as Jenny’s mother remarries her English farmer, Jenny’s own misery and grumpiness and being uprooted, the absolute horror of having her beloved Mister Cat put in a six-month quarantine. There is a a gentle grittiness to all the details, which doesn’t back off when other supernatural elements are introduced, a pooka, a boggart, the wild hunt. Jenny’s Indian best friend sharing stories of the ghosts in India. A distant romantic tragedy in the farm’s past that is unique enough to move you even though you’ve read a hundred distant romantic tragedies before.

My only complaint is that sometimes it feels too rushed, too many years packed into 400 pages. Which, considering the somewhat domestic nature, isn’t much of a complaint—I wanted to spend more time with the characters. Sometimes I dislike the way plot and bigger conflicts get in the way of finding out who the characters are ‘behind the scenes’ if you will. But maybe that would make for a slogging read.

As it was, Tamsin was a great read, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone jaded with haunted houses and ghost stories, who may want to see what something different tastes like.

*achingly, apparently, isn’t a word, which I think is ridiculous. It has a decent word-feel to it.

Peter S. Beagle, because

•02/07/2010 • Leave a Comment

My personal goal of updating Wednesdays is not having a good track record so far. I wonder if I’ve limited myself too much with the narrow subject matter. I don’t often know what to write. Well, I’ve been reading and re-reading Peter S. Beagle a lot this summer. I’ve gone on a Beagle binge, so to speak. So I will write about my relationship with Beagle’s writing.

Beagle was one of my favourite authors before I’d read any of his books or knew his name. You see, (horribly embarrassing confession time!), as a young girl, I was obsessed with unicorns. Honestly, I still am.. I’m just more defensive about it. (They have frickin’ weapons on their heads. Seriously.) And Peter S. Beagle is the genius behind The Last Unicorn, which remains one of my favourite movies.

The book is obviously better. I’m somewhat glad I never read it until I was a teenager, because when I was younger, I found Beagle hard to get into. His prose is poetic, lyric. It’s chewy. There’s a lot there. As a child, I never would have understood the gentle humour, the soft way Beagle makes fun of his story and characters while remaining serious and true to them. I would have missed half the references. I think the movie is perfect for children, summing up the more adventurous parts, while the book is for adults, with its references and its philosophy.

Beagle, of course, is not just The Last Unicorn. Hardly. He wrote many books and short stories. And I read somewhere that he considers The Innkeeper’s Song to be his favourite of his works. I find this interesting because while there are many things I love about The Innkeeper’s Song (namely the poem), I wouldn’t rate it at the top of my favourite Beagle works list. It is a beautiful book. I just don’t think it approaches The Last Unicorn in that strange misty magic, or A Fine and Private Place for its perfect simple humanity (that covers the raven and the ghosts). The construction of The Innkeeper’s Song reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—not at all in content or style, but in that almost sloppy artistic way, where the story rambles here and there and while it makes several points or touches several themes, it doesn’t feel wholly unified. A piecemeal story, where the creator is stumbling over pieces of the world as it is being written. I’m finding the stories in Giant Bones, a book of short stories set in the same world, much more polished, and, honestly, more riveting.

At the moment, I’m reading Tamsin. 30 pages in, and I’m hooked like there’s no tomorrow. (Why aren’t I reading it right now? I’m being attacked by a swarm of biting writerbugs.) In 30 pages, the protagonist is stuck moving to England with her mother. That’s all. And yet it’s not. It is the perfect example of show, don’t tell. It’s the perfect example of just why details are so important to a story. Because they’re quirky. They’re interesting. The protagonist describes her world so vividly that you can’t help but be interested, despite the fact that technically nothing’s happened yet. The image that stands out the most for me is the protagonist walking into the kitchen to see her mother chewing on a carrot. That’s the reason I’m falling madly in love with this book, 30 out of 335 small-print pages in. A mother eating a carrot. The author who can do that must surely be the best magician in the world.

So, Peter S. Beagle. His writing, as I’ve said, is lyric and poetic. It jumps off the page with quirks and curiosities. And yet it is often softly delivered. He can make you believe anything. Sometimes, when I read Beagle, I feel there’s a voice whispering or softly singing the stories into my ear. Intimate, quiet, but powerful. I don’t often Beagle the easiest writer to read, because his stories demand attention. But they are so very rewarding.

Book Review: For All the Tea in China

•23/06/2010 • Leave a Comment

Is this blog more about tea or is it about literature? I’m not sure I care to quantify, but this book brings together the best of both worlds. Sarah Rose’s For All the Tea in China is an engrossing account of how the swashbuckling botanist Scotsman Robert Fortune sneaked into China and stole tea plants, tea workers and the knowledge of how to prepare tea, for the British Empire. The book jacket claims it as “one of the greatest corporate thefts of all time.” And Fortune’s exploits are exceedingly badass: near the beginning, Rose recounts how Fortune, while ill, managed to send two Chinese pirate junks fleeing—with only a pistol and bravado! Fortune never lacks for courage in his adventure, and the resulting story is riveting and sometimes incredulous. Fortune manages his smuggling act while travelling deep into China disguised as a mandarin. Hijinks ensue.

But Rose explains the political and economical environment clearly and when it’s needed, so the reader can clearly see why tea was so important, and what the impact of botanists at the time was.

For the most part I found the book quite readable. It’s short, only around 250 pages, and moves along at a good pace. Nothing about it is dense or off-putting. Rose writes from a British-centric point of view, but she doesn’t hesitate to point out that Fortune was often quite paternalistic to the Chinese he interacted with, explaining the cultural difficulties that led to tensions between Fortune and his Chinese assistants.

This is not the most heavy or philosophical of works. Its simplistic overview of the political events probably leaves much relevant information out. Its delivery is, however, choppy. I understood the logic behind the section’s organization and it proceeded in a roughly linear fashion. I can’t vouch for the historical facts, I’m not a student of history as such, and at any rate I don’t know much about Victorian colonialism, except what I’ve picked up piecemeal, so I found myself somewhat confused by the timeline. I wasn’t sure when Fortune’s activities were in relation to the First Opium War. Fortune makes two separate trips, to collect ‘green tea plants’ and ‘black tea plants,’ even though they are the same and Fortune believes they are the same. We’re never told why Fortune goes on two trips even though he knows the plant is the same, good old Camellia sinensis. What is his rationale? Why does the book progress as if it’s still hiding the fact that the tea plants are the same, waiting for the big reveal? The book’s treatment is shallow and sensationalist. Don’t mistake this for anything other than light reading. There are also at least three occasions where Rose writes ‘surfeit’ when she means ‘surplus.’ These were my biggest beefs with the story. That and I’m not sure if some sort of moral discussion should be given to the fact that… well, it was a theft. Fortune is celebrated as a hero (albeit with flaws), but was that…right?

Still, all in all, For All the Tea in China is a good way to spend an afternoon or two. A little gem for anyone looking for light reading. Just be prepared to find yourself wanting to know more details—which might not be a bad aftereffect!

Chamomile

•08/06/2010 • Leave a Comment

I’m a pretty nervy person. It’s easy to get me riled up, or jumpy, or excited. I’m most calm when I’m on a moving vehicle, or swinging on a swing-set, or biking. Or reading, but I’m irritable if disturbed, as my parents and roommates will attest. I store tension in the dozen permanent knots in my back, in my neck, in my calves.

Thus, today I bought chamomile tea on a whim. (At Silk Road, loose-flower form.) Chamomile is reported to be calming, sleep-inducing (not that insomnia troubles me these days), and soothing, for the mind, the digestive tract, and hopefully muscles, although I’m sure it’s not a wonder-drug. Still, calm feels like some long-lost paradise, my every valiant effort to reach it only hindering my ability to achieve it.

Here’s hoping the chamomile will aid with attaining the that Holy Grail of health, relaxation.

Polyphony – Part 2

•31/05/2010 • Leave a Comment

Humans are sensual creatures, we understand the world through our five senses, and we enjoy them. This is important writing advice: the writer has to communicate the slap of a harsh wind on the face; birdsong before dawn; an admixture of cinnamon, sulphur, elephant dung; the way mint coats a mouth. I can well imagine how easy this must have been to the village storyteller, who uses sound, movement, colour, interaction to keep the audience lively—and who knew, almost exactly, the experiences of each member in the audience. Convincing is easier when you have a frame of reference. And that is why the language of folklore is so simple.

And our writing is anything but. The writing needs to stand on its own and give the impression of polyphony, or we’ve lost the audience.

In the ages, writing was held apart from other mediums, and there was a tendency to isolation, monoculture. Which can lead to stagnation of the material, I’d argue—not that having books and paintings separate is a bad thing (it’s not), but that it limits the idea of what one can accomplish if one thinks outside the genre. I knew I grew up with the scoffing notion that REAL books didn’t have pictures in them—that’s for children, or the stupid/illiterate. But I’ve always loved illustrations; I find they enhance a story for me, give me more stimulus for my imagination. I’m jumping off a trampoline instead of pavement.

Ideologies aside, I think both as culture and as humans we lean towards polyphony. Movies combine sound and visuals. Graphic novels are inching towards recognition as a valid literary form. Video games include sound, visuals, and interactions (the Wii takes this to the next level). And then you have the Internet, where of course picture accompanies text, although sometimes also video, or just a song, or animation. Multiple senses engaged. Technology only helps that. Suddenly, things held rigidly apart—literature in books, other forms of writing in magazines or compendiums etc, art in galleries—are placed side by side, wantonly at times, a veritable orgy of mediums.

Which I think is fantastic. There’s so much dialogue and interaction possible among the arts, inspiration abounds. A poet writes a poem; tomorrow, there could be a digital painter making a masterpiece from it. Sarah Monette writes short stories based off jewellery. The only thorn in this freeform tangle is, of course, copyright laws (I’m thinking the wars on fanfiction here), but I’m sure they’ll change again someday. It’s not the nature of human creativity to be stifled for long.

Anyway, I love books. I don’t see them dying out anyday soon. However, I see no problem with illustrations, even fanart (provided it’s of a certain calibre) printed within the covers themselves. (I love maps, especially in fantasy: I find it great for visually orienting myself; I take pleasure in tracing the routes from one location to the other). Comic-like strips accenting the text? Why limit yourself? Children’s book gimmicks can be transformed into art, if we’d like to. And I would be amused to see such.

Polyphony – Part I

•22/05/2010 • Leave a Comment

Two days ago I finished a book called The Wisdom of the Mythtellers by Sean Kane. A fascinating, complex, beautiful read. It asserted that myths reflect the environment of the culture; the myths of a hunter-gatherer culture in comparative harmony with nature will differ from the myths of an agricultural culture, which is more focussed on struggling against nature (i.e. controlling, fencing, farming).

The final chapter discussed literature and the transcription of oral culture (myths, lore) to writing. Writing is seen as a boundary, entrapment if you will, of polyphonous story/poetry. Where before listening to a story involved the senses: hearing the tone of the storyteller’s voice, seeing actions or becoming aware of the landscape or locale, possibly even touch and smell—fur pelt, incense?—now it was limited to stark letters.

This is what necessitated ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Because there is no more show when all you have to tell a story is paper. Thus, the metaphor. Before, stories were told in simpler language. Hence, the simplicity of the language in folktales. Thus, the notion that I’ve been struggling with since Writing 200 when Tim Lilburn, via Gary Snyder I believe, taught us that poetry is nature, is the pattern of mackerel clouds at sunset, is the splay of tree-leaves over the stars, is the trail of ants in formation.

And for centuries we’ve exalted the written word. The literate were—and are—the nobility, the powerful, the privileged. Those with traditional knowledge have the power. We call elders of oral cultures ‘walking libraries’ because in written culture, those controlling the libraries are those with the power. Knowledge has been contained for centuries in little word-gardens called books (or scrolls or cuneiform tablets). There is no evolution for the written word. I’m not arguing this is better or worse. I’m not sure what it means. I’m not sure it can be limited to good/bad values.

Language is contained. Language is hoarded. Other mediums take a lesser role. Consider the case of medieval cathedrals. Only learned priests who studied the dead language, Latin, could read the Bible. To communicate the stories, they were carved or painted or made into series of stained glass windows. I grew up Catholic; my Da told me that the series of pictures depicting the last days of Jesus up until his crucifixion were in every church. Well, of course, because up until about two hundred years ago, most church-goers were entirely unable to read. The Bible, as a means of learning and social control, needs to be shown to the common person. And there comes out of this a natural devaluation of illustration versus the elevated written word. Words: nobility. Pictures: peasantry.

Which brings me to the case today, where fine art is its own niche, and literature is another, and somewhere in the middle of it their unloved bastard child, the graphic novel, is continually overlooked and devalued. (And films are something else again.) Again, what we see is separation. We, the culture at large, value monoculture.

To be continued…

Summer Lovin’, aka, Motivation

•13/05/2010 • Leave a Comment

School’s over. It’s been over awhile, I suppose, but it’s been such a chaotic ride that it’s taken me a few weeks to realize that I haven’t been writing as much. I’ve been writing, certainly: wisps of poetry, journalling nearly every night, some background work on that dratted novel; and, ubiquitous during job search season, cover letters. (Blergh.)

But without workshop pressure I haven’t even considered the short story (which I rarely feel the urge to write anyway), and those wisps of poems are just that, wisps. Hardly completed. I don’t know if school wrote me out (writed me out? writinged me out?) or if summer just screams LETHARGY at me until my bones are like to faint, or both. But it’s hard to work up any motivation to do on-my-own writing when I could be reading or getting drawn into another TV series or countless other less involved projects.

And there’s another trap, honey-scented, ambrosial, and fitting all-too-well with summer’s LETHARGY onslaught: reading about writing. Storytellers Unplugged. Holly Lisle’s site. Etc ad nauseam. Best yet, it provides the illusion that it is productive. And, partially, it is. Or would be, if I supplemented it with actual work.

My current solution theory is goal-setting. But goals and self-set deadlines are a fine line for me. Set them too low, and I get nothing done. Set ‘em too high, I fold. Wordcount goals kill the joy of writing for me. Going for a nebulous scene might be a solution, or, backing up, getting such-and-such part of the plot outline done. Goals just concrete enough whilst still allowing me all the creative room I need. Now all I need is the motivation to put goals into practice.