History?

Recently I wrote about adaptations of books and rating them. I obviously have a lot of thoughts on both of these subjects. Today I’m talking about a sort of hybrid: historical novels. I think that they are adaptations of history and therefore, I’m going to rate them as such…

I recently read “Lost Roses” by Martha Hall Kelly, her new prequel to “Lilac Girls” (which I also read) I also recently read “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris. There may be spoilers ahead: I’m not sure how I want to pen my ideas.

Historical novels are books based on actual events yet are fictional. Hmmmm. Should we be doing this? Why would we do it? What could go wrong when we take an actual event and fictionalize it? Are you starting to see where I’m going with this?

I know both of these books are based on actual events. They speak of real people who did things in their lives. In one case, the author had actually spoken to the namesake tattooer. So these things really happened.

Mainly.

And there’s the problem. We take an actual person, an actual thing that they did, and then you build a fictional story around it. Fictional. As in, one thing was real, and maybe 80% is what the author dreamed up based on historical documents. Hmmmm.

As a fledgling writer I have been in classes where I have presented a story or chapter and have been met with choruses of “That would never happen in real life.” “That’s not believable.” Even published authors have received criticism that things aren’t realistic. (and we all know that sometimes what we write, even though labeled as fiction, is actually based on real events, so like it or not, things happen). So with actual fiction, every story, anecdote and happening must pass the believability test. It has to actually seem like it would happen. Not so much with historical fiction.

I think there is much more license to be creative when something is deemed historical and based on a true event. You have to believe it because this is a real character who had a real life and real things that led to this incident or time in history. You must believe all the words on a page because it “happened”. It’s based on a “true story”.

I call bullshit.

Here come the spoilers.

“Tattooist” is basically a love story. Boy meets girl as he is branding her with a tattoo in Auschwitz, a concentration camp run by the Nazi’s in World War II. All these things are fact. Real people, real places, real events. Truth. The author actually spoke to the tattooer before he died.

But the story…If this was the first Holocaust book that someone read, they would have a very poor understanding of what it was. This book was more reminiscent of summer camp, and boys and girls sneaking behind the cabin to have sex. Which is literally a scene in this book. Now I want to ask you logically: with what you know about concentration camps and Nazi’s, do you think that a male and female prisoner would be able to sneak behind a building to have sex (excuse me- make love) and long talks? Do you understand why I looked at the book and said “Bullshit”?

Now, in this case I’m not blaming the author. She actually interviewed the main character back in the early 2000’s. But honestly, I can’t imagine his memories were very real. First off, by then he was probably in his 90’s. I’m sorry, memory fades with age. Secondly, he is a Holocaust survivor: he is going to have the memories he chooses to have because he survived one the most horrific periods in history. Like anyone who has experienced a personal tragedy, they need to separate things in their mind- the survivor instinct lets you build a whole new reality. But to say “Based on a True Story”? I take offense to using those words with this book.

In “Lost Roses” I am totally blaming the author. She has chosen to write about women in a prominent New York society family during WWI. I don’t think she actually spoke to any of the women personally. These women were pioneers in helping those who could not help themselves, refugees and others. Commendable. Women like this should be recognized.

But…

To say that there were parts of this story that were ridiculous is an understatement. The coincidences and chances of fate that happen? You would not believe how many people happened to be walking down the street at the same time as their love from twenty years prior, especially as they are now in a completely different city. And the degrees of separation? every time they met someone new, that person knew all their friends and relatives. Amazing. Fate at its finest.

Bullshit.

How many acts of fate and coincidence am I supposed to believe because something is labeled “based on a true story.” In 1917 Russia, am I supposed to believe that a woman by herself was able to get a horse and a cart through the revolution and onto Paris? Really? In a country with no food and constant rioting because no one was really in charge, a beautiful woman was able to get out alive, feed herself and feed her horse, from St. Petersburg to Paris? Really?

Come. On.

But I guess it happened because it was based on a true story.

So yes, I’m throwing the entire historical fiction novel, especially those based on a true story, under the bus. Don’t get me started on revisionist history either- just because we wish something was so doesn’t mean it was. But that’s not even a blog- that’s a book…

So…

Historical fiction? Yay or nay?

 

 

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The Book Clubs- Part 2

A few weeks ago I discussed how I was going to counter empty nesthood: by joining two book clubs. One at my local Barnes and Noble which would be discussing new and noteworthy (aka hyped) books and one at an independent book store focusing on foreign books in translation.

Fine.

Except, all my IRL friends said that I was totally going to the Barnes and Noble one. And they added, there was no way I was going to the foreign book one.

Oh how well my friends know me.

This past Monday I did indeed skip the independent bookstore club (I mean- I didn’t read the book, so, you know…) and on Tuesday I went to the B&N one.

First off- great success to the B&N club. It was run by two young enthusiastic readers who came prepared with great questions and the ability to keep the group in line. There were probably about fifteen of us in all, fourteen women and one lone man. Why do men not like book clubs? The majority of the women were older than me, but there one or two younger. In all, it was a lively group filled with varied opinions and ideas and thoughts. The conversation solidly revolved around the book for the hour. I will definitely be going again next month.

Here’s the thing about me and reading and book clubs. I love to discuss books. I love discussing how the author moved the plot forward, or what devices were used. I love questioning why something was done in a certain way. But sometimes I wonder if I read books differently than others.

The book we discussed was “Lost Roses” by Martha Hall Kelly, the prequel to “Lilac Girls” (which I read and disliked as well) I made a point about a part of the book I thought was preposterous, and no one else had picked up on it. After I said it, a few people opened there mouths and said – “Oh wow- I didn’t think of that. that’s right.” But some people just stared at me. I made another point about how a character acted in a particular scene and I said I lost all sympathy for her after that scene, and people again said they hadn’t thought of it like that. So I can’t help but wonder: am I odd? Do I read into things differently than others? Do I look for oddities?

When you read a book, how do you read it? I know we all know how to read, and as bloggers and blog readers, we’re actually pretty good at it. But how carefully and critically do you look at novels that you’re reading? (and don’t talk to me about grammar because we all know that I don’t do grammar and will not fault anyone for incorrect grammar) When it comes to characters, do you actively look for the subtle moments when they change? Do you notice inconsistencies in plot line?

I know numerical inconsistencies drive me crazy. The only time I ever emailed an author had to do with ages of her characters- she changed the age of several characters several times (and it wasn’t a self published book!!!)

So, what makes you question a book? What makes you decide you like, or don’t like a book? Inquiring minds want to know.

 

One Star

I had a very interesting conversation with TJ Fox the other day. We were discussing reviews and rating systems and I said I never give a one star review (or five star for that matter), and I usually discount one star reviews as well. TJ asked- “Don’t some things warrant a one star?”

And I got to thinking…

Is there anything so bad that it should be given the lowest star count on a rating system?

What would make a book so bad that it would deserve only a star?

My thought process is that a book would need to lack in all areas. The plot would need to be ridiculous, the characters one dimensional, the dialogue unbelievable, the setting mundane and lifeless. There would be no rhyme or reason to the chapters or structure. it would need to make no sense. And the grammar would need to be completely off the mark. I have yet to meet a book that lacks in all these criteria simultaneously.

When reviewing something, what goes into it? When you tell someone “Don’t read” or “Do Read” or “Must read” on what basis are you setting that? How much of that is personal preference?

I have a really good friend S. Her taste in books is opposite mine. She never enjoys the books I like. Is she wrong? Am I wrong?

No. Because that’s the problem with reviews: you can be biased by what genre or style you like or don’t like.

I recently read Taylor Jenkins Read “Daisy Jones and the Six”. The story unfolds in an interesting way: from the perspective of someone making a documentary of a band. So the story is told in snippets of how interviewees answered questions. I thought it was a brilliant way to tell a story of this sort. I love quirky ways of telling a story. Others don’t. How fair is it to give this book a one star review because you don’t “like” the method? (I saw one star reviews of this book, so this is a legitimate concern)

I don’t like science fiction. Just don’t like the genre. Would it be fair of me to rate a sci fi book one star?

I did not like the TV show “Breaking Bad”. I stopped watching after season two. I also only watched one episode of “Game of Thrones”. Is it fair for me to say DNF (did not finish) or one star because it’s not my taste?

This week I talked about book to movie adaptations: plot changes, characters eliminated or changed, miscastings…. To someone who has read and loved a novel, the adaptation of it just falls short. But what if someone never read the book and just watched? I never read the Inspector Lynley books, but I thought the series on PBS was pretty good. But Jane Fritz thought that it was totally miscast. We would rate it differently because we are viewing it from two different angles. Would it be fair for Jane to give it a one star because it’s not what she wanted to see based on her preconceived ideas?(to be clear, Im using this as an example- I don’t know what she actually would rate the series) Just like me with the Malkovich Poirot: I thought it was HORRIBLE because I am a Poirot purist. But what if I had never picked up a Christie? Would I still think it was horrible?

So…

How does one write an impartial review? How do you divorce personal preference and just look at the bones of a work? What should a review be based on?

 

Who?

We all agreed that John Malkovich was by far the worst Poirot ever. Though to be fair, I  saw a movie with Tony Randall playing the detective, which was just…..indescribable…. It was done in the sixties, so I’ll forgive it to a point…. But what other roles have been horribly miscast?

I love Tom Hanks. He is one of my favorite actors, and he actually seems like a really great guy. Fine actor. I can’t tell you how good I think he is. Except, you know, he can’t play everyone. For example- “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Not only was this a horrible adaptation of a book, it was just a horrible movie. I mean horrible. And miscast is an understatement. The last person who should have played the arrogant prick of a main character was Tom Hanks.. (In hindsight Kevin Spacey would have been perfect actually…)

And how about the iconic Dan Brown character, Robert Langdon. I remember reading DaVinci and was casting the movie in my head. I immediately thought Liam Neeson. Maybe Russell Crowe. Tom Hanks never entered my imagination. I have no doubt that Tom Hanks is a brilliant guy- but he doesn’t play as an elbow patch wearing Harvard academic. Not. at. All. And they keep making the movies with him, and I keep watching them, and I keep shaking my head…..why oh why?

This is one of my problems with film adaptations of books. As a reader, you get a mental picture of a character. This week a couple of people had very interpretations of what Jack Reacher should look like. And that’s great, because we all bring our own interpretations into things. But when you have imagined a character one way, and then see them on a big screen as something else….well, it’s hard to change your mind.

Sometimes you have the perfect casting. Colin Firth is Mr. Darcy. End of discussion. I will never read P and P again without picturing Firth. Jennifer Ehle is Elizabeth Bennett. David Suchet is Poirot.

It’s a wonderful thing when an author writes such a brilliant character that we all “know” what they will actually look like. We know how they would act, we know how they would react. Some authors have the innate ability to bring a character to life. Things like this are what makes a great book: iconic characters and settings. And a literature purist just doesn’t want to see the dream fade. They want the character to live on in their memory.

If I overthought this subject a little more, I could probably argue that there is some psychological component to this. We imagine something and then the reality is quite different. Maybe we want to keep our fantasies safe…..but this is a blog for another day…

But anyway….worst miscastings?

Eliminating and Melding

I love books.

I love movies.

I don’t always love books made into movies.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when characters are eliminated or melded together. I understand why it’s done: keep production costs down by reducing headcount, keep storyline cleaner, save time. I understand the practicality- I am all about the practical. But….

The first time I encountered this daunting character thing was upon reading Gone With the Wind. SPOILER ALERT: In the book Scarlett has three children, Bonnie is her third. The movie adaptation of this book only has her having one child.

Blasphemy.

Even at twelve, I was incredulous that this had been allowed to happen. It was a 9 thousand hour movie, with 8 billion people in the cast. Really? They couldn’t cast two kids? The additional kids were a great way to really look at Scarlett’s character as a whole person. Being a Mother changes you, or should change you? Did we miss integral parts of the story because they weren’t included in the movie? Did the premise change? How much of the integrity of the book was compromised by cutting out these characters?

Not long after my disillusionment with the movie/book dilemma of GWTW, I encountered another slight- “Rich Man, Poor Man” (SPOILER AHEAD) In the movie there is a sister character and a girlfriend character. In the mini series, these characters were combined.

What? Combine a sister and a girlfriend to make one character? Madness…

Now, I admit that RMPM is not a classic of literature- it’s a page turning soap opera of a story. But you take any lesson or value or literariness out of the book by melding these two characters together. If the book had melded these characters it might not have gotten published- that’s how strong the need is for there to be two separate characters. Nature/nurture was a strong foundation of the novel, and it was completely reduced to cheap and tawdry in the mini series. But I guess even back in the seventies we just wanted cheap and tawdry…

So- which book/movie adaptations annoy you the most regarding eliminating or melding of characters? These were the ones that came to mind because these were the first time I recognized the phenomenon.  Which characters were integral to the storyline of a book but ended up in the vast black hole of unused characters?

 

The Bookclubs

As you may know, I belong to two book clubs: one in my building that meets monthly, and one with my tea club that meets five times a year. You also know that I set a yearly reading goal of fifty books, so my aim is to finish one book a week. We can assume that I love to read, and I love to discuss books that I’ve read

Recently I found out that two lower Manhattan book stores hold book clubs once a month.

Can you see the lightbulb flashing?

I’m considering joining these two book clubs.

One of them meets at my local Barnes and Noble and reads new and hyped books. The May selection is “Lost Roses” by the same woman who wrote “Lilac Girls”. What do I think about the book? Well, that’s a secret I’m going to share at my first book club meeting…

The other book club is at an smaller more eclectic book shop. They focus on literature in translation, and the first book is a biography about some French person. I’m fifty/fifty as to whether I start out with this book this month.

Why am I considering joining two new book clubs?

Well, that’s easy: I know I need to fill up some of my evenings. Empty nest=empty evenings. And while I do chill to a certain extent, in the beginning it will be hard to adjust to not having my daughter in the apartment. I’ve gotten used to be asked to review an essay or quiz her on something- this has been my life for twelve years- assistant to the student. At 11, I usually sit in her room with her for a few minutes. We both sip tea and discuss our day that just passed, or out day coming up. This has become our ritual. And I know come August 23, it will abruptly end. Many of my rituals will end.

The thought of not having a routine is unsettling.

I am the Queen of routine. I have routines and patterns and spreadsheets for literally everything. I need to start integrating my new routine into place before she leaves…I need to integrate in many new routines.

Can you feel me hyperventilating?

Breath. Focus. Logic.

The problem with my book clubs is that they happen to meet on consecutive evenings: first Monday of the month for one, the first Tuesday of the month for the other. Do I want to have book clubs back to back? Can I walk into one of them and ask them to change the date? No? Yeah- I guess that’s taking control to a whole new level…

The other problem is that I don’t love certain genres. I’m OK with the club that reads the hyped books: I’m probably reading them on my own anyway. But the other? I have no idea if it’s going to be a bunch on non fiction. I don’t love discussing non fiction books in book club. I mean, what do you say? She shouldn’t have done that with her life? What can you actually discuss about a biography other than reiterate what the author said in the book…And again, I can’t dictate what this club should read…

And finally- if I belong to all these book clubs, will I have time to read the books that I just want to read for my pleasure? I realize that I will have more time, but… Do I want to make my yearly reading goal 75 books?

Now I get that book clubs are just a way to hide behind the loneliness that I will experience, but we all need something to hide behind for a little while, until we get out feet back on the ground. And a book club is relatively inexpensive, and not exactly bad for you. I’m already addicted to books as it is. What’s a few more?

Jo, Meg, Beth or Amy

Last week I gave you assignment: read “Little Women”.  So now that we’re up to speed…

Ok- I really didn’t expect the six of you who haven’t read the book to go out and get a copy…but for all of us who have read it, I noticed a common theme.  Whether it was my book club or the blogverse, every woman who reads LW identifies with one of the four main characters, Meg, Jo, Beth or Amy. I think this is what makes the book universally appealing, to see your traits show up as one of the March sisters. So today, I want to know how you define the characters, and which character you think you are. (I know some were pondering this question last week)

I looked up SparkNotes to get some ideas for character description.

Meg: Oldest daughter.  Responsible. Kind. Mothers her younger sisters. Small weakness for luxury and leisure. Gentle.  Loving. Morally vigorous

Jo: Wants to be a writer. Temper. Quick tongue. Tomboy. Doesn’t like limits placed on girls and women. Hates romance. Strong willed. Impetuous.

Beth: Very quiet.  Very virtuous. Tries to please others. Musical. Sweet. Moral compass.

Amy: Youngest daughter. Artist. Adores beauty.  Materialistic. Pouter. Whiner. Can have temper. Vain.

When I first read the book a hundred years ago, I thought if myself as Beth.  But more the shy quiet Beth as opposed to the virtuous part.  I guess this is how I would define my younger self: quiet, out of the way, wanting to please others.  Thank gosh I got over the pleasing others part…

I think everyone wants to be Jo.  She is the protagonist and the strongest character in the book.  But, we can’t all be Jo…

So….how else would you describe the sisters?

Which sister are you?

Are there other literary characters that you identify with?

I know a woman who was named after Amy: were any of you named for one of these characters?

Choice A or Choice B

I recently got a letter from author Jessica Knoll.  I also received one from author Curtis Sittenfield.  No, not real, stamped in an envelope real, but rather a generic email sent via Goodreads.

Dear Waking,

Hope you enjoyed my last book.  I just wrote a new one.

Love,

Best Selling Author

So, here’s the question: do emails such as this work as a marketing tool?  Upon receiving this email, does one get all aflutter and immediately put the tome on their TBR?  Or does the email go directly to the symbolic trashcan?

Which brings us to the next question: How do we choose the books that we read?

I am a hands on sort of girl.  I love trolling around bookstores- the real brick and mortar ones.  I love to walk the aisles, look at the covers, read the blurbs. The blurbs are very important to me- I can usually get a pretty good idea if it’s a book that would interest me, and if it’s the type of book I’m in the mood for. I peruse the staff favorites, the new and notable, the best sellers.  I find most of my new reads in this decidedly old fashioned method.

Another way I find new books is the newer age Amazon.  I punch in a book that I enjoyed, and I scroll down to the section that shows other books similar in style and/or genre.  And then I go back to the blurb method- I read the paragraph summary.  I also check the star rating- I like to see a solid “4”.  While we’re in this paragraph, let’s chat about the recent headline that Amazon reviews should be further reviewed.  How can one trust a review?  I try to use common sense:  too many 5’s is a red flag that something is a plant.  I almost never give out a 5 star review: there are practically no books that I consider perfect.  I am also wary of too many 1’s.  Really?  The book was that bad?  I look for books that have the majority of their reviews somewhere in the middle.  That seems more reasonable.

So, since many of my blog friends are reviewers, you’re thinking:  Does she read reviews.  Yes.  I do read reviews, BUT I am really careful of the reviewer because I don’t like spoilers.  Basically, I want to know if something was good, bad or indifferent- I don’t want to be told the story- I want the story to unfold naturally.  But, I am an avid reader of reviews AFTER I have read a book.  I love to see what someone thought was important, or interesting, or worthless.  I like reviews because I like the discussion aspect of a book (as evidenced by my participation in two book clubs, and being always open to talking about a book)

My yearly reading goal is 50 books, about a book a week.  But here’s an odd little fact: I have a relatively short TBR.  I think I have about 5 books on my Goodreads TBR, and maybe three or four pages ripped from the NY Times or magazines.  If I like a book enough to jot it down,  I read it fairly quickly.  I get excited when I find a book that interests me, and just want to get on with it.  I know this is a departure from the average avid reader.

So, because it’s Friday, and I am not looking forward the weekend because I have family obligations, I am hoping you all make my weekend better by telling me your methods of choosing books.

Do you read marketing emails?

Blurbs?

Recommendations from friends?

Reviews?

Throw a dart?

Also: how long is your TBR?

 

 

 

Week in Review- March 18-24

Another week in the books!  Here’s a little wrap up of my week:

What I Listened to:

Claude Debussy: Treason- Oriental Influences for Flute and Piano

Lucy Dacas- Historian

Yuja Wang

Grateful Dead- The Best of The Grateful Dead (Live- remastered)

Borns- Blue Madonna

Romeo Santos

Esa-Pekka Salonen- Memoria

My Fair Lady soundtrack

Apollo Fire

What I Watched:

“Call the Midwives” (I know- I’m late to the party.  Love)

Queer Eye (I miss the original Fab 5, but still love the concept)

New York International Children’s Film Festival- Shorts Program 3.  My daughter and I have been going to this festival since she was three.  We love voting on our favorite movies.  If I find the program I will list the films we saw.  Our favorite was “Negative Space”.  I know “Geneva Convention” won the category though. (technically last week, but…)

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“Instinct” This could become my new favorite show.  I know it’s a golden age of TV, but I like my TV light and easy.  I have home ADD- I can’t just watch TV, I have to watch along with doing something else, so thoughtful TV shows are out of my realm.  This is a nice. cozy mystery starring Alan Cumming.  Seriously perfect for me.

“Keep the Change” I love indie movies, my Husband doesn’t.  Recently, he found out about an amazing Italian place across the street from one of my favorite indie movie theaters.  Sometimes it’s a win/win.

What I went to:

Angela Hewitt performing Bach’s :Goldberg Variations”.  She is an gorgeous pianist, but I have to say the first two thoughts after the 90 minute no intermission performance were 1) Wow.  She has that all memorized.  and 2) look at how stiff she is when she got up from the piano.  That takes a lot of stamina

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Cooper Hewitt  Saw “Access and Ability” exhibit which was a cool exhibit about the functionality of design and “Bob Greenberg Selects” which was just his curation of tech objects in our world.  This is just a fun space and cool if you have kids and are visiting. (technically this was last week but I didn’t mention it because I was in a lousy funk last week and didn’t feel like writing about it

What I’m Reading:

Finished “Portrait of a Lady” ( I actually liked this book when I first read it 30 years ago.  Not so much on the reread)

“A Piece of the World” Christina Baker Kline (remind me not to have my two book clubs meet within days of one another…)

Funnyish part of week:

My daughter has applied for three summer internships so far (the other four are in the works of being sent out).  I thought she would definitely get called back for one of them:  she didn’t.  I thought she had no  shot at another: so of course she got an interview.  So another moment that I literally know nothing.  But- she did get an interview with the one she really wants, which was almost a disaster because she didn’t get the first email they sent….

Random Question (getrandomthings.com)

Are you related or distantly related to anyone famous? Infamous maybe…  But, my cousin plays lead guitar for a fairly popular singer, but that’s borderline if he’s famous or not.  Otherwise, no.  My family is utterly unremarkable.

Stitchfix:

Yay!  Very happy to love my box.  Yes- I am obsessed!!

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Definition: Good

I feel like I’m working with the whole chicken/egg dilemma today.  My original thesis was, ‘does a book need to be good to be important’.  And then I thought, well, what makes a book ‘good’?  And the more I thought about it, the more intertwined the ideas became.  So how do I broach this topic?  Do I want to broach this topic?

Let’s start with an example.  I recently read “Origin” by Dan Brown and “The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin.  I did not consider these books to be particularly well written.  I thought there were plot inconsistencies and gaps that brought me out of the story.  I thought some of the dialogue was tedious and repetitive.  I thought the characters were a little too stereotypical, yet behaved in illogical ways.  I did not think these books could be defined as good.

But…

Both of these books left me thinking about them after I had read them.  I wrote a post about the main plot line of “The Immortalists” because it was so thought provoking.  I have discussed these books with people and journaled about them.  I have spent more time talking about these books than books that I labeled ‘good’.  I think I’m going to remember these books. So, doesn’t that make them good?

Now think about this: can you think a book is good yet not like it?  Can you like a book but think it’s not good?  Or are like and good too intertwined?

I know there are books that I thought were well written but I did not like. (Handmaids Tale)  And if I thought about it I’m sure I could find a book that I thoroughly enjoyed yet no one would ever call it a good book (my novel).  But how many people differentiate?

So. here’s todays thought points:

  1. What makes a book good
  2. What makes a book important
  3. Do you think of these things when you are reading

Yes.  I am asking you to write my blog for me this morning because I am in a quandary.  What do we look for in a book, and why.

Discuss: