I, Claudius by Robert Graves

This was an interesting and entertaining, though not always very engaging read. Told from the point of view of  Claudius, a stuttering, limping, nephew of the emperor Tiberius.

I have no idea how much of this is historically accurate beyond the births and deaths of these people, but it painted a disgusting picture of the political world in Rome at this time. The book at many points read as a list of murdered people. Anyone who had even a slight bit of integrity or likability was murdered to help Tiberius (and eventually Caligula) stay in power. I feel like Game of Thrones may have been influenced by this kind of history.

In many ways, the greed and paranoia of those in power reminded me of our own political world today. Those in power seem evil in a pathetic, rather than impressive way.

On the down side this is a very historical novel, in that it is more a list of events than a story. The narrator, Claudius, hardly takes any actions himself and is more documenting all the things that happen around him. This makes the story hard to get into at some times.

 

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Scent in writing

I’m reading Perfume: The story of a murderer, by Patrick Suskind, and am impressed with the amount of detail he’s put into describing smells. It is an underused sense, in writing, and maybe that is part of why it seems so amazing, but I’m really being drawn into the strange way this character perceives the world.

Scents are so varied, and so strongly tied to memory and emotion, that it’s a wonder they aren’t more widely used in descriptions. People are just so visual in everything we do, that the other senses get overwhelmed…

What I want to read…

I’ve been reading Burial Rites by Hannah Kent with a book club I just started with some friends. It’s much more enjoyable to read a book when you have people to discuss it with, but how can anyone ever get their friends to read the same books… if you’re even fortunate enough to have friends who read at all!

So we each submitted some choices, and voted on those choices (can’t vote for your own submissions!) and ended up with a book that everyone at least kind of wanted to read. Success! It wasn’t my top choice, but I was interested!

The novel is based on the true story of an Icelandic woman sentenced to death for murder in 1829, and her last days living on a farm with a family, who are tasked with watching over her while she waits her execution.

This sounded appealing to me, because I always am curious about the mind states of people in extreme situations. What would it be like, knowing you are doomed to die, awaiting the inevitable end day by day… Because it is like a magnified version of all our lives, all will end, all will end definitely, but we pretend they won’t. I find myself curious of what it would be like when you can’t pretend anymore.

I’m about 40% done with it now, and while it is an intriguing read, it’s not what I’d hoped it would be. The story seems to focus more on the family’s perception of her, and her interactions with a priest, and doesn’t delve much into her internal feelings on death. Not so far anyway. It seems to be more about perceptions, and how we decide a person is one way, just because of what others say of them, or judge their entire life and being all based on a single action, a single mistake.

An interesting read so far!

 

My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk

I love reading about artists. I can usually identify with those kinds of characters pretty well. This story was an interesting look at the ‘miniaturists’ of 16th century Istanbul. And what held my attention most, was the way they looked at art.

In that time, ‘style’ was seen as a flaw. If anyone could tell your work from that of any other artist, that meant that you were making mistakes. All this is surrounded by a murder mystery, where trying to find out who drew a certain picture is central to the plot…

I also found the connection between art and religion interesting. The miniaturist (painter/drawer) saw himself as trying to depict the ‘essence’ of whatever he drew. For instance, if he drew a horse, he was not trying to draw any particular horse from reality, but the purest form of ‘horse’ that existed, as if the horse that God saw. After drawing a horse a million times, the artist could draw it from memory, using only his minds eye, even if blind… some of the miniaturists would even blind themselves on purpose, to keep their art from being distracted by the outside world…

An interesting and exciting and educational read.

That feeling when you still have half the book left

One thing about audiobooks, is you can’t tell how far into the story you are while listening. A paper book, you can see the thickness of the pages in your hand. A kindle book has that little percentage on the bottom as you turn the pages. But an audiobook, who knows?

I’m still listening to My Name is Red, and I had thought that the narrative was drawing to a crescendo, and that the story would soon be over. Maybe it’s because I’m used to listening to books that are ~10 hours long, and I sort of felt this time approaching, but I actually am just reaching he halfway mark.

It’s a fun feeling to find out that a story you are enjoying is suddenly going to keep going for a lot longer than you thought!

 

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Love, death, ghosts, and history. What a sad, funny, interesting and heart-squeezing novel.

From Wikipedia:

Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt “on several occasions” to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietà. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt […].[10]

What must that feel like… to not only finally complete a project you’ve been thinking about for decades, but to also have it be so acclaimed?

I hope he feels proud, because it is great. I never would have though a book written in such a strange way could evoke such strong feelings, but it does. After a few pages of it, you don’t notice the strangeness as much. Or, you do, but it is no longer a hindrance. It blends into the feeling of it. The idea of dozens or hundreds of viewpoints coalescing into a single story of a single night.

I think anyone with an open mind could enjoy this book. The only people I’ve seen saying bad things about it are just complaining about the way it’s written, not what’s written.

The only minor complaint I had was how short it was. The 360 or so pages it claims would actually be probably half that, if each page were covered with words instead of having them spread out as it is formatted.

Read if you want something fresh and interesting and heartfelt!

Don’t tell me what I already know

There are two ways to reveal a surprise or secret you’ve been hinting at in a story. Well, I’m sure there’s more than two but let’s be black and white for a minute.

There’s a good way, and a bad way.

There’s a way that makes your reader smile and say ‘ah, yes I suspected that’ and feel good about themselves for being so clever to notice what the writer was doing. And there’s a way that makes them sigh exasperatedly and shout I KNOW at the page.

Showing is better than telling, yes, but what’s worse than telling, in my opinion, is when you show very nicely, then tell anyway.

Here are two examples, one from an irritating book, and one from an amazing book that I’m in love with. Both contain spoilers so be warned.

Let’s start with the bad way.

The first example is from Borne, a book I’ve recently read and posted about here. At this point in the story, we have already been shown multiple times that Borne is able to change his shape. In one scene, one of the characters, Wick, enter’s the viewpoint character, Rachel’s, room. We are told that he’s looking odd, sickly and kind of green / purple in color. These are Borne’s colors, so I think–as I’m sure the author intended–‘oh, Borne can impersonate a human? This is interesting.’ So far so good. The character doesn’t guess it, and that’s okay. I know, and her not knowing makes it a bit creepier. She goes about her day unsuspecting, but then later goes into Wick’s room and witnesses herself talking to Wick. Creepier still! However, the author then feels the need to turn to the camera and say ‘It was Borne!’ as a dramatic way to end the chapter. Cue me shouting I KNOW at the page (or in my case at the dashboard of my car). All the impact was taken from the scene, and the whole thing became ridiculous as I’m thinking to myself ‘was that supposed to be a surprise?’ I was surprised he could take human shape, but really, what else could it possibly be talking to Wick? It was obviously not Rachel, who was standing there watching…

Now a good example, from The Crimson Petal and the White. One of the main characters is a prostitute early in the story, and has much unprotected sex as a consequence (it’s the  1870’s.) She has a concoction she mixes up to pour into herself after each encounter. Later in the story she’s moved to a new location, without her things, and doesn’t have her mixture, and is still having sex. I’m thinking ‘uh oh, she’s going to get pregnant’. It isn’t mentioned or hinted at for a long time, and I’ve almost forgotten about it. Then we start hearing how tight her clothes are–why do people keep getting her size wrong? She’s feeling sick randomly. She feels like her chest is getting bigger. ‘Oh no,’ I think, ‘she is pregnant after all! I was right!’ The character doesn’t suspect yet, but I know. Later, with no dramatic reveal, no ‘gasp, I’m pregnant! Oh no!’ or the narrator saying ‘she was pregnant!’ to end a chapter–the character simply starts trying to take care of her problem through various ways (one of them, throwing herself down a staircase D: ) There is no point where we’re told she’s pregnant, until much later when the character thinks something like ‘such and such hasn’t happened since I’ve been pregnant’. It is not a dramatic surprise reveal, because we already know. And the author knows we know, because he knows we aren’t a daft, mouth-breathing set of brainless eyes that needs every word explained to them.

So, there you have it. More examples of why you shouldn’t tell your readers what’s going on as if they are an idiot. It’s very annoying, and makes you seem like an idiot and a bad writer.