Posts tagged ‘novel’

February 7, 2011

Book Review: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

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SHADOW TAG
by Louise Erdrich

Harper Collins
(February 2011 pb, $14.99 , 272 pages)

We once lived next door to some rather inscrutable neighbors: friendly enough when caught in the driveway for a quick hello, but otherwise cool and aloof. Occasionally, we’d catch glimpses of their interior lives – a tearful phone conversation on the patio, voices raised in argument, a slammed car door and the racing engine of a hasty departure. There seemed no way to inquire about their well-being, to offer a hand, or a thoughtful word. They kept their distance quite efficiently. They never wanted to connect, never offered to reciprocate after we initiated the social niceties. But how much did we really want to know anyway? How much should we know? Where did they end and we begin?

Reading Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag is a bit like looking too long over the inscrutable neighbors’ fence. It feels like you shouldn’t pry, yet it explains so much. The irony in Shadow Tag – one of many – is that Erdrich’s main characters, the artist Gil and his wife, Irene, have become strangers to each other within their own home, erecting careful facades, putting together each other’s stories from miscues – and in Irene’s case, intentionally misleading clues.

Erdrich’s character development draws the reader in the same way looking too long over the fence might; you don’t want to keep listening, but you want to know – need to know – what’s happening and why. Although I don’t typically care for indirect third person dialogue (sans quotation marks in this case) it’s an effective device for the terse, tense nature of Gil and Irene’s marriage. The distancing created by the third person is akin to hearing a conversation through a wall instead of being in the same room with the speakers. When Irene meets her half-sister in a restaurant, it’s as if you’re in a neighboring booth, lacking context or facial expressions; it’s just a vignette of voices.

 

 

The line between internal thought and external dialog is blurred in Shadow Tag. Without quotation marks it all becomes one long stream of consciousness, flowing seamlessly from journals, to thought, to conversation and back – one big head game. Time is fluid in the novel. The past informs the present, the present puts the past in perspective and the story flows between histories both personal and cultural. Shadow Tag functions as art history, too, a gallery of arcane knowledge about paints, colors, and artists.

But mostly, it’s a literary portrait of a family in turmoil, framed by the ethnic and popular culture of their times. History must have a narrative, Irene says at one point. Shadow Tag is the narrative that brings her and her family to life and also puts the reader at a safe distance, though perhaps too safe a distance. With no frame of reference for the Native American cultural issues – it took me a few page rereads to figure out what “enrollment” meant with respect to tribes – and the third person dialog that never quite lets readers into the conversation, or fully invites them into the experience, I found it hard to connect with the story or find some commonality with the characters. Not that you’d necessarily want to be part of their experience, which is a generally dark and dysfunctional one with a somewhat predictable outcome.

While I think the book is well written, I don’t feel that I took away anything of value from it. I didn’t find it transformative in any sense, nor was it particularly enlightening or escapist in the way of taking me on a journey of self-discovery, intellectual revelation or entertainment. I found much of the story frustrating. Although perhaps, like a game of shadow tag, you take away from Erdrich’s novel only as much as you’re able to make out in the dim light of the characters’ lives, what you’re able to piece together watching from the periphery of their existence, and then perhaps only within the framework of your own family history.

In the end, I found Shadow Tag masterful, but depressing. But maybe that’s how it is when you look over the neighbor’s fence too long.

Theresa Willingham

October 28, 2010

Book Review: Darwin’s Dreams by Sean Hoade

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DARWIN’S DREAMS
by Sean Hoade

May December Publications LLC
(September 2010, $12.95, 200 pages)

Religion and science have struggled to coexist throughout history, especially when Charles Darwin introduced his theories of evolution and natural selection. To this day, creationism and evolution continue to be the topic of great debate, which makes Darwin’s Dreams a poignant novel illustrating the inception of Darwin’s famous theory.

Darwin’s Dreams is a fictional story based on the real voyage of the HMS Beagle from December 1831 to October 1836. This was actually the second survey expedition of the Beagle under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy. During this time in history, command of a ship could lead to overwhelming stress and despair, as in the suicide of FitzRoy’s own uncle. In addition to his personal need for a traveling companion, FitzRoy felt the expedition would benefit from the addition of a geologist. After being turned down by two others, FitzRoy’s superior, Captain Beaufort, received recommendations for the young Charles Darwin.

Hoade begins his vision of this historical endeavor with the first meeting between FitzRoy and Darwin while the Beagle is docked in Plymouth, England in 1831. During this conversation, FitzRoy warns Darwin, “Whatever you put into your head, the spirals of vertigo will whip into the most vivid images while you sleep.” This excellent foreshadowing by Hoade sets the premise for the novel; the author creatively uses dreams to convey the thoughts and emotions that Darwin experiences on his journey, both on the Beagle, and afterwards, when Darwin writes about his overseas experiences. Hoade uses the interlude dreams to divide the chapters, propelling the reader forward from 1832 in Brazil to the Down House in 1865, and laying out the path that eventually leads to the publication of The Origin of Species.

Hoade demonstrates the depth of his philosophical background by deftly describing famous writings of well-known philosophers and scientists, such as Gottfried Leibniz and William Paley, and through his interpretation of Charles Darwin’s subconscious. The visions Darwin experiences while he sleeps illustrate, not only what he has been reading, but also the reasoning behind his deductions and the influence of the great thinkers. Anyone familiar with classic writings of philosophy will recognize the works that Hoade incorporates into the story of Darwin’s inner struggle between science and religion. Some of my favorite dream interludes were The Ark, with an interesting explanation of mythological creatures and dinosaurs, and The Hindoos, who are able to literally see the connection between every living soul through “mesmerization.”

In addition to Darwin’s Dreams, Sean Hoade is the author of the noir-thriller, Ain’t that America. Hoade teaches English and creative writing and his short stories, poems and cartoons have been published internationally. He is currently at work on a graphic novel, teaching an online writing class, and making waves in the zombie community with his horror shorts. He loves to receive email from his readers.

Ursula K. Raphael

October 22, 2010

NaNoWriMo: What the Hell Was I Thinking?

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BY LACEY N. DUNHAM

In the past, I’ve toyed with participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) but have always found an excuse: November’s too busy, I’m in the middle of a project, I’m spending every waking hour of the entire month washing my hair.

Then Lars happened.

I’d completely forgotten that NaNoWriMo was approaching when Lars asked me, in September, if I planned on participating this year. Caught unawares by his Canadian charm, I couldn’t think of a good excuse. Even my previous year’s handy, ready-made put-offs evaporated.

Why is my resistance so weak to you, Lars?

So now I’m participating in NaNoWriMo. This means that during the month of November, my goal is to produce a 50,000 word novel alongside thousands of other writers (called “wrimos” in the NaNoWriMo parlance). I calculated this out: if I’m going to meet my goal of 50,000 words, I must write approximately 1,666 words each day for thirty days. That’s about three, single-spaced pages of a novel on a daily basis.

Scratch that. My goal for the month of November is not to go crazy trying to write a 50,000 word novel.

The main problem is that I’m a slow writer because my self-editor kicks in far too frequently. Even if I write three pages (or more) a day, I’m just as likely to delete 80% of my work the next day. I get stuck in the synonym mud of finding the perfect alternative to the word “bitter.” I work and re-work dialogue between characters and, sometimes, entire characters themselves. I tend to write fiction that is less action-orientated and more literary, where characters have an argument on one page and spend the next forty pages reflecting on it.

Also, I’ve never written a novel before. Not a real, grown-up novel. I wrote “novels” all the time when I was a child, but these were mostly fifty page rip-offs of whatever Nancy Drew or Boxcar Children book I’d recently read. Once in a while I’d get smart and rip-off Katherine Patterson or Mary Downing Hahn but, generally, I’d go the commercial route with easily marketable mysteries. My writing focus is on short stories, many of which undergo three or four complete revisions before my first reader ever sees a draft. I guess the question is, can a short story writer produce a fifty thousand word novel in just thirty days?

I don’t fool myself that this novel will be anywhere near good. No one will ever read it because after November, I’ll paw through its carcass for salvageable phrases and then delete the remainder without mercy. In all likelihood, this “novel” will reflect the various curse words I pitch at my computer screen as I sit down to advance my literary, people-in-a-room-thinking plot one word at a time.

So what’s the point of participating in NaNoWriMo?

For one month, I can try something I’ve never done before and can do it in the company of the very active NaNoWriMo group in my region. While I’m suffering, so will thousands of others and, in an odd way, that provides great comfort. I have permission to shut-off the self-editor that lives in my head. And Lars has promised me cupcakes. Isn’t that reason enough?

 

To join Lacey in her NaNoWriMo adventures, sign up to participate and then search for her under the username “laceywritesanovel.”