The Making of a Marchioness

“Even novels and plays were no longer fairy-stories of entrancing young men and captivating young women who fell in love with each other in the
first chapter, and after increasingly picturesque incidents were married
in the last one in the absolute surety of being blissfully happy
forevermore.” (The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

The Making of a Marchioness CoverAt first glance, The Making of a Marchioness appears to be one of those lovely British 19th century romance books that you think you can predict from the first page. The under-appreciated, poor woman is the one chosen by the lord to wed. You’ll guess that it happens right at the end, that you’ll be lead through many steps and missteps as their courting progresses and they fall ever more deeply in love. However, this supposition turns out to be entirely incorrect. The marriage between the excessively naïve, wonderfully practical Emily Fox-Seton and her lord happens right at the start, and the story ends up being less about the couple’s relationship and more about what would drive a normal person to contemplate murder. And the theme, as it emerges, is just as surprising in the book as it is in its description.

As the development of the plot defies expectations, so does Burnett’s descriptions of her characters. She looks down on them from a position of superior intellect, pointing out their lack of brilliance and false reasoning, but also their innocence and emotional virtues. In contrast, modern authors tend to leave their characters to reveal themselves through actions and dialog, letting the reader judge the depth of their feeling or intellect independently. While I do like having the autonomy to make my own judgments, I have to say that mine are rarely so well expressed, well thought out, or as benignly objective, as Burnett’s.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 100 pgs
Ending: Resolved, Happy
Incidental Learning: London, circa 1900, English high society
Further Reading: Burnett’s ability to assess her characters reminds me of Trollope and George Eliot. Go there first before revisiting 19th century British romances like Austen.

The Tawny Man Trilogy

“Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there any more.”  (Fool’s Fate by Robin Hobb)

Fool's Quest CoverThose of us fantasy lovers who have reached at least our thirties yearn for books that don’t just talk about teens. Sure, teens are relatable (we all were there once), but those years are not necessarily the ones we’d like to relive when we’re seeking a good escape from our normal lives. Where are the fantasy books that focus on older characters, instead of just inserting them as mentoring secondary figures? Where did all the books go that claim those of 35, 40, or even 50+, can still change the world for good?

Fortunately, Robin Hobb has taken up our cause, publishing a trilogy with a main character of 35, who claims to be 42. Although she does, strangely, talk about him as though he were an old man, constantly complaining about his scars, aches, and pains, she also makes his everyday problems relatable to those in their thirties: children turning into teenagers, how to navigate relationships, and how to come to terms with your past. And, it turns out that we can still change the world – even though we might complain a bit more while doing it.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 2,320 for whole trilogy
Ending: Peaceful
Incidental Learning: Magic systems, dragons,
Further Reading: Well-written fantasy with mature characters are tough books to find, and I have found few in my reading life. Although much more literary, I’d still recommend Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell


“They had the beauty of the second glance, the beauty that only revealed itself with intimacy. All Pip had ever heard a brown towhee say was Teek! … It couldn’t have been simpler, and yet it seemed to express not only everything that a towhee would ever need to say but everything that really needed to be said by anyone. Teek!” (Purity by Jonathan Franzen)

Purity book coverThe litmus test of true literature is not liking the characters. It’s almost a prerequisite. Of literature, you’re bound to hear someone in your circle of friends or acquaintances proclaim ‘I couldn’t finish it, I didn’t like a single character’. Neither will you, but you’ll know that this is what makes a book interesting – characters described fully, contradictorily, with all of their flaws exposed to your reading eye. You may have many feelings towards complicated people such as this, but simply to ‘like’ them is out of the question.

Franzen doesn’t write character-driven literature – he just writes characters. All that he details – appearances, settings, back stories – only appears because a character thinks or speaks it. Not for a moment does he step out of his characters’ heads in order to explain or excuse; he uses their thinking as the raw data that eventually builds an un-interpreted story. While this book may lack the warmth, the relatability, of his earlier works, you still read it for the same reason you read any Franzen: to learn what it’s like to be in someone else’s head for a moment.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow Now – Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 576
Ending: hopeful
Incidental Learning: East Germany, StaziFilm art,
Further Reading: This book made me think of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. If Franzen has  tendency to focus microscopically on his characters, Ferrante leans towards summarizing thoughts and feelings without concreteness. The two may balance each other out.

The Writing Life

“I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” (The Writing Life by Annie Dillard)

The Writing Life CoverThere are two ways to explain something complicated. One is the direct approach. You come at the subject like a bulldozer, front and center, ramming into the pile of knowledge over and over until it is orderly and clear. The other approach is more mysterious, less direct. You sneak up on the subject, hoping not to scare off its complexity, and you wait for it to reveal itself. To get at the entirety, you might find yourself resorting to poetry, analogy, metaphor in order to hint at your subject without diminishing it.

Unlike most who write about writing, Annie Dillard approaches her subject in the second way – indirectly. She loosely connects stories, random thoughts, bits of poetry, and examples from famous writers’ lives to lead the reader down a mental path that points towards truth. In short, this book is a place where a writer might come, when blinded by the fear of one’s craft, in order be caught up by the unfamiliar. Then, instead of thinking of your own struggle with your work, you’ll think of the inchworm, inching its way into nothingness. The doomed pilot, feeling the rhythm in the air. The rower, rowing all night against the tide. It is very possible that disjointed stories like these will awaken the side of your brain needed more than tired, unexplained strictures about quote attribution and proper hyphenation.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow NowBorrow SometimesAvoid 
Length: 111
Ending: Indirect
Incidental Learning: Pilots, inchworms, how to find honey, facts about famous authors, etc
Further Reading: If the indirect approach is your preferred method of learning – stay way from Stephen King’s much lauded On WritingProbably the only thing that would satisfy you after this book is more Dillard.

The Story of the Lost Child

“Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything at the end consoles you.” (The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante)

The Story of the lost child coverIf, as Ferrante intimates in the above quote, good novels are the ones that don’t hide in the extremes of character, morality, or causation, then her novel is good. She has written something cyclical and true, where the history of a whole life seems both monumental in its aspirations and meaningless in its lack of peace, understanding, or happiness. It is the story of a sometimes banal, sometimes insightful woman who cycles between the realization that she projects her best qualities on her friend and the knowledge that her friend’s brilliance is beyond her comprehension.

While Ferrante avoids her definition of a bad novel, artfully sidestepping blacks and whites, she doesn’t quite achieve the brilliance some of her passages suggest she’s capable of. Throughout, she hints at a better novel. One that isn’t so chronological, that doesn’t tie up loose ends with clichéd conclusions (even if they gain depth on each revisiting). One that doesn’t reduce old age to a resigned compliance with life or obscure deep truths with an over-abundance of words. In both naming her book ‘not bad’ and alluding to one that could be better, she places her own novel in that same in-between state as she does her characters: neither good nor bad, not completely likeable or unlikable, sometimes saying the right thing, sometimes the wrong. In the end, you might learn more by reading this imperfect quartet than the perfect one the author imagines her brilliant friend could’ve written.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 480 pages
Ending: cryptic, not consoling
Incidental Learning: Italy, Naples, 1980’s and 90’s political climate in Europe, life of a writer
Further Reading: If you’ve read through this whole quartet, then you a person comfortable with unease in writing, a person who seeks out unheroic, unremarkable characters who seem neither likeable nor necessarily unlikable. You don’t need something to ‘happen’ in your books, and instead you rely on the writing itself to keep the pace. If this is you, I recommend the following: Middlemarch, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Grapes of Wrath, The Sportswriter, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Swamplandia!, Mrs. Bridge 

Neapolitan Novels, 1 & 2

“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done.” (The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante)


my brilliant friend coverI’m frequently asked the question ‘what are you reading’? Usually, the responses I give to these well-intentioned questions are the first time I articulate what I think about each book, and the words I use become the basis for my posts. Yet, since I started reading the Neapolitan quartet, I haven’t been able to come up with an answer. I stumble, mutter something about Naples and Italy, friends and growing up, and generally come off sounding like I have no clue what I spend my time doing. The reason is that Ferrante writes true literature. She writes books that are about no more and no less than what happens to you in your everyday life. And how does one describe something like that in an elevator speech?

Ferrante doesn’t waste her time on plot or setting – she has too much work to do describing the fears of childhood, inadequacies of adolescence, the deciding who you are and what you want in life of the 20s. While her characters mark time by major life events – loss of virginity, marriage, children – internally, they cycle through the same thoughts and actions, just hoping that things turn out differently this time around. As an observer, you can’t help but want to reach in and give them a little perspective. If only Ferrante could write about your life so that you could see the patterns you’ve fallen into with equal clarity.

Perhaps she already has.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: My Brilliant Friend: 331, The Story of a New Name: 471
Ending: Each part of the quartet ends a particularly revealing moment, like the end of a short story
Incidental Learning: Naples, Growing up in Italy in the 1950s, poverty, Politics
Further Reading: If this series reminds me of anything, it’s Middlemarch. While the books are both epic in certain ways, Ferrante focuses her efforts on a small cast of characters.


On Writing

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” (On Writing by Stephen King)

on writing coverIn his memoir on writing, King frequently uses the phrase ‘you must kill your darlings’. Meaning, axe your favorite parts when they detract from the main point. Hypocritically, he ends the whole book with a giant un-cut darling: his car accident in ’99. Though he claims the story illustrates the healing power of writing, he’s just talking about the generalized healing power of work. Setting aside the ending hypocrisy, and the meaningless beginning biography, King packs some powerful big-picture thinking about his craft into the middle chapters that make the whole hodgepodge well worth a read.

I’ll summarize:

To write, you must read and you must write. A lot.  Bad writing stems from a fear of being misunderstood. Passive sentences stink. Active sentences rock. You must learn the fundamentals of grammar before you break the rules. Adverbs are weeds that need to be cut. Quote attribution should never be more complicated than ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. The shape of a paragraph has more meaning than the details of a sentence. Write how you speak – if you use simple language in real life, use it on the page – if you speak like an academic during the day, then write like one at night. Write your drafts quickly, all at once. Take a break before editing. Listen to the beat.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 288
Ending: Hypocritical
Incidental Learning: You came to learn about writing, you end up learning a lot about Stephen King
Further Reading: Another great writing manual/memoir is ‘Bird by Bird‘ by Anne Lamott