Friday, January 28, 2011

Originality Anyone?

I was listening to an interview with William Skidelsky on CBC Radio Q and I thought that he made a number of compelling arguments.  He is an editor of The Observer and wrote an article for The Guardian bemoaning the lack of original material in recent films and novels.  With the amount of movies and books based on or inspired by true stories, Skidelsky argues that there is a lack of creativity amongst the artists that produce them.  

I definitely agree with Skidelsky that there is a lot of laziness amongst television and movie executives.  The recession is to be blamed for some of the unoriginal concepts and needless remakes, and I can understand why studios want to go with proven formulas and built-in audiences.  Mindless entertainment is one of those things that people turn to when times get rough, so one can comprehend why people watch silly reality shows and second-rate versions of classic favourites.  If they weren't inexpensive to produce and nobody tuned in, then studios wouldn't be motivated to produce the material they do, so, like many things, it's society's fault.  

I also think that the evolution of society is also to blame for the lack of originality in books and movies.  Skidelsky points out that there is an insatiable appetite for knowledge of what goes on behind-the-scenes, and publishers and producers are only too happy to oblige us.  If you want celebrity gossip there is True Hollywood Story, many blogs and tell-all books.  Our rising interest in social media is also to blame for our obsession with the private lives of celebrities. Nowadays, one can easily find out what is going on in the personal and professional lives of our political leaders too; even while they are in office. One of the best examples of this from the Canadian standpoint is Prime Minister Harper's political aide, Tom Flanagan's book Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power.  It seems like the new leader is barely sworn in before the outgoing president is beginning his or her memoir. 

I think that Skidelsky's argument breaks down, however, when he criticizes novels based upon real stories.  In particular, he points to the success of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel as an example of public acceptance of historical fiction.  I do agree with his assertion that it is a safe choice for a novelist like Mantel to mine the story of Henry VIII, because there is always going to be a built-in audience.  But in other ways I disagree.  To some extent, I believe that it is almost more difficult to write an impressive novel about a subject that has been a popular source for literary material.  It is a daunting task to differentiate one's work from the many other books that have already hit the shelves.  Though the book had a better chance of monetary success, Mantel required a higher level of creativity and writing ability garner it the critical acclaim it received.

In summary, I agree with some of Skidelsky's arguments and disagree with his criticism of historical novels.  I have included a link to Skidelsky's article so that you can form your own opinion.  

Monday, January 24, 2011

Under the Veil: The Complete Persepolis

One of my personality quirks is that it often takes me a long time to decide what I want to read.  The other night I was hovering around my bookshelves in my typical fashion, when my boyfriend pointed out that I hadn't yet read The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  I hadn't read a graphic novel in some time, so I pulled it off the shelf and began to read.  

The story revolves around the author's childhood and young adulthood as an Iranian woman.  At the beginning of the book, Satrapi gives a short account of thousands of years of Iranian history which was a helpful refresher for me.  I had read another autobiographical book from an Iranian woman, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, so I knew a bit the Islamic Revolution beforehand.  Though Nafisi described Iran in great detail, her story of the Revolution is from the perspective of an adult and Satrapi's is from that of a child.  Gradually Satrapi and the reader learn of the changes occurring and how the population reacts to the evolution of their society.  One funny scene is when a ten-year old Satrapi and her classmates have no idea what to do with the veils that the regime has imposed upon them.  So they use them in their games in a manner that would be frowned upon by Islamic clerics.  As the narrative continues, Satrapi outlines how the laws in Iran become more and more oppressive for young people in Iran.  Her parents end up making the painful decision for her to go to school abroad so as to ensure her safety. They felt that because of her education, she might be targeted by the regime, and therefore Satrapi went to Austria to continue her schooling.  

In the course of events, Satrapi ends up back in Iran where she feels lost.  There have been many changes during her time abroad and she feels that she has little in common with other women her age.  Mostly they seem preoccupied with getting married, whereas Satrapi is thinking about her career goals and what she should do with herself now that she has returned to Iran.  The theme throughout this book is how Satrapi feels that she is an outsider, both in Austria and in the evolving climate of her homeland.  In Austria she is alienated from her classmates due to a language barrier and her experiences in a war-torn country.  When she returns, Satrapi finds that she no longer recognizes the country she left four years before.  

One of the aspects of this novel that I liked the best is how honest Satrapi is with her readers about her faults.  Along the way, she uses drugs, and, for a short period of time, sells drugs to her classmates as well.  Her relationships with men have little success, but her ability to adapt to her surroundings allows her to strike up good friendships.  This honesty gives a lot of authenticity to her story and makes her easier to relate to as a flawed heroine.  Although I am by no means an expert on comic art, I think that her simplistic style allows you to focus on her words rather than the visuals.  Though Art Spiegelman's drawings are more detailed than Satrapi's, her personal writing style reminded me a great deal of his Maus trilogy. Both convey life under a dictatorship in a manner that people from peaceful, democratic nations can identify with.  I would highly recommend this novel for anyone looking to learn about the political situation in Iran, or a person who wants to read a compelling autobiography.          

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Shameless Local Plug

I'm pretty shameless and/or jingoistic in my love of Canadian fiction, and I am constantly looking for new authors and old favourites to satisfy this need of mine.  So when I was in the library recently I went to the Canadian authors section to see what I could dig up.  What I found was Before I Wake by Robert J. Wiersema, a novel by a Victoria writer which is also set in Victoria.  

The basic plot of the novel is that a three-year old girl is hit by a truck and rendered comatose.  Her family is torn apart by the accident and the subsequent medical issues that the young girl faces.  Once the daughter's condition stabilizes, miraculous events begin occurring which defy explanation and her parents' religious beliefs.  Simon and Karen wrestle with the consequences of their daughter's gift and Wiersema deftly explores the downsides of this miracle.  He invites the reader to question their own religious beliefs without the usual preaching that often accompanies this type of content. Also the style of writing allows the reader to dive in and suspend their disbelief.  The reviews inside the cover of the book led me to believe that this novel was going to be one of those books that should only be undertaken by people with an empty long weekend on their hands.  It's one of those suspenseful roller coaster rides which is plot-based rather than an in-depth character analysis.  That's not a bad thing. When done right, like Before I Wake, it allowed me to escape from real life and lose myself in the problems of others.  Such is the beauty of reading good fiction.   

As a proud resident of Victoria, I personally got a kick out of the many references that Wiersema makes to local restaurants, streets, and other landmarks.  The novel has a really strong sense of place and really captures the essence of the city.  Though I have read books  set in Victoria, I don't think that I have ever read one that describes the city with as much detail as Wiersema does in this particular novel.  Another Canadian author with a similar ability to combine suspenseful plot with a fully-developed setting is Giles Blunt, whose Ontario-based mysteries also give the reader an accurate picture of the landscape.  

So in summary, the plot is so gripping there needs to be a warning label and the setting is beyond compare.  Not to brag or anything.     

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Beauty in the Ordinary

When I choose which book I'm going to read next, it usually takes me a little while.  I hover around the bookshelves deliberating in a way that only further reinforces my indecisive nature.  In an effort to ensure that I would not be disappointed in my choice, I picked out a book which I thought was absolutely foolproof, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.  

Years ago, I was first introduced to Shields when I read Unless, a book that is in the mix amongst the best Canadian books of the past decade.  From my experience with Unless, I knew that I was in good hands with Carol Shields, and that I only needed to strap myself in and enjoy the ride.  The plot in an of itself is not the most stimulating, and is more than a little reminiscent of The Stone Angel by Margaret Lawrence, but I was still riveted for the most part. The Stone Diaries, like The Stone Angel follows the life of one woman, Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her dramatic birth, until her slow convalescence and eventual death. Aside from her unique childhood and short first marriage, Daisy doesn't really present herself as a dynamic personality.  Rather, she is surrounded by interesting people and through her eyes we glimpse their quirks and adventures.  

Books, for the most part, are driven by one or more of three factors: plot, characters, or language.  This book is primarily carried by the language Shields uses and the secondary characters.  Shields had a gift for describing everyday situations in a refreshing way, which is a quality that distinguishes good writing from great writing. Aside from her birth and childhood, there is nothing particularly engaging about Daisy's story, but the language Shields employs and the lives of other characters held my attention.  Daisy's father, Cuyler, is definitely one of the most distinctive characters I have run across in a long time.  From his beginnings as a humble stonecutter in Tyndall, Manitoba, he becomes a magnate and marathon orator.  His evolution as a character and his pursuits are fascinating and chalk full of symbolism.  The contrast between Cuyler and his daughter is quite dramatic, with him living life on a grander scale than his daughter. He lives his life and takes on projects without any thought to public perception.  Though Daisy is not a slave to the opinions of others, she lives within the confines of the female gender role of her time.  

This is pointed out to the reader by her son, Warren, who views her life as a waste of her intellectual potential.  I think that it is easy to criticize from the perspective of another generation, and it is difficult to judge her choices from a modern point of view.  Shields' gift for narrative is her ability to elevate the lives of the average, normal protagonists, so that they are appreciated in an of themselves.  It is far easier to tell the story of an adventurer or a rags-to-riches success, but Shields' talent lies in showing the reader the beauty of the everyday.  There are many novels featuring the lives of fascinating people and they provide great escapes, however sometimes it's nice to take a peak into the life of an ordinary woman like Daisy.        

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Drama-Free Vacation Read

During the Christmas season it's important to choose just the right book to while away the holidays.  I tend to pick fiction for December in the same way as I would for a beach vacation; something with a good plot that is not controversial or jarring.  For me Christmastime provides enough drama, so I seek refuge in some well-written, safe fiction.  With this in mind, I chose to read Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland.  

Previously I had read the first book in her Josephine B. trilogy which focuses on the life of Napoleon's wife, Josephine, so I knew what to expect from Gulland.  I will return to the other two novels in the trilogy at some point, but Mistress of the Sun called to me on this occasion.  Gulland again follows the life of a woman romantically attached to a powerful Frenchman by centering her narrative around Louise de la Valliere, the famous mistress of King Louis XIV.  Louis (aka The Sun King) is best known for his opulent lifestyle and personal charisma, and his fidelity (for the most part) to Louise struck me as very interesting considering the decadence of his surroundings.  The author goes out of her way to describe the powerful effect Louis had upon the women of the court, mentioning on a number of occasions how women often fainted in his presence.  

I think that Gulland succeeds in making the romance between Louis and Louise believable by making Louise's personal narrative compelling.  Her seduction of the most powerful man in the land is a bit of an underdog story.  Physically speaking, she is at a bit of a disadvantage.  As a child, she broke her ankle in equestrian accident and it was not set properly, leaving her with a permanent limp.  This limp forced her to wear corrective boots which never successfully correct her walk.  Her figure has little to recommend it either.  In a time where a voluptuous body is the ideal, she is thin and small-breasted. Also, her family fortune is gone after the sudden death of her father, so she is left without a dowry.  While she spends her time entertaining the king, her unknowing mother constantly attempts to scrape up enough money to enhance her marriage prospects.  

Another aspect of Louise's personality which makes her unlikely to attract a king, is her tomboyish love of horsemanship and hunting.  She is used to the outdoors and can hold her own with the men of the court, whereas the other ladies usually just put in a small cameo appearance.  This quality initially attracts Louis, and their mutual love of hunting and horses brings them together.  I was a little surprised to find that there is a little bit of a feminist message ingrained in the story of a mistress.  Ultimately the book reaffirms the personal power of a woman who knows who she is. Louise's strength stems from her ability to look at her situation unflinchingly, and plan accordingly. She knows her role as a mistress and when she feels trapped in this position, she acts in order to gain her own independence and happiness.  

I'm not sure if you can sense this, but I have a personal bias in favour of royal mistresses. This is in complete contrast to the way that I feel about modern-day mistresses, who I feel have more responsibility for the suffering of wives.  For the most part, women courted by kings had little choice but to submit to their desires.  Families pressured them to woo royals so that they could get more titles, political power, land, etc. and there isn't much a girl could do to convince them otherwise.  Thus I found the story of Valliere somewhat refreshing.  She did not seduce the king for any political or monetary reason, but rather, enjoyed his company and was physically attracted to him.  

The other thing that I found refreshing about the book is it's blend of readability with historical facts.  Throughout the pages of the book it is evident that Gulland has done a great deal of historical research is preparation to writing this novel, but the reader is never beaten over the head with facts.  The plot and the historical content work together seamlessly in a manner which is difficult to achieve.  I don't know how many novels are thin on historical details but good in terms of story, or vise versa.  It's story pulls the reader in without being a lightweight guilty pleasure.  A great book for those looking to escape the drama of the holiday season.