Friday, July 26, 2013

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: Those Who Save Us

Warning: this review contains some spoilers.

Many books have been written about World War II and the Holocaust. I, for one, didn’t think there was anything new anybody could say on this subject. But apparently, I was wrong. Jenna Blum had lots to say.

Those Who Save Us is a novel that offers a different perspective of the war. It’s not a novel about the battlefield and the soldiers who fought and perished there, or the people who got sent to concentration camps to die. This novel focuses on the Germans who helped the Jews—or didn’t—and the price they had to pay for their actions. It’s not a novel of moral absolutes; it’s one filled with grays.

The story is told in two timelines by two women: Anna in the early 40s, a baker’s apprentice who has a relationship with a Jewish doctor that leaves her pregnant in the midst of an antisemitic world; and her daughter Trudy, a history professor in the 90s who grows up in Minnesota trying to understand who she is and how to muffle the shame of what her German ancestors did.

As Trudy embarks on a series of interviews to understand the German perspective during the wara cleansing of sortsher mother Anna locks herself in silence and baking. While Anna tries to leave the past behind, Trudy is determined to uncover it and understand it, creating increasing friction with her mother. But Anna’s past unfolds in front of our eyes with painful detail. In her youth, we see her as a woman whose initial naïveté and playfulness transforms into courage and bitterness. She often has to do things she doesn’t want to do, things that will haunt her for the rest of her life, but we also see her generous spirit and her tenacity as she puts herself in danger to help others. This mixture of guilt, impotence and the drive to survive makes her a fascinating character.

Blum does a good job at introducing the romance between Anna and the Jewish doctor, but I can’t say she’s equally convincing in a romance that flourishes later on. The novel seems to sag a little at times (particularly during the years where Anna has a relationship with an SS officer) and has a few scenes of what some may consider gratuitous sex. But overall, the story flows well, and Trudy’s interviews are dynamic and interesting.

With a literary style that is sometimes frustrating (Blum chooses to do without quotation marks during her dialogues) but most often satisfying for the richness in language and the vivid descriptions and imagery, Blum shows us a different, a very human face of the war. Sure, there is a fair share of one-dimensional villains and victims thrown in the mix, but there are many characters in-between. And those are the ones who kept me reading.

I recommend this novel to those who have sometimes been disappointed with books about the Holocaust because of how predictable and/or repetitive they seem, and want to explore a different perspective. But this novel is not for everyone. There are a few violent scenes toward women and children. The subject is one that elicits a lot of emotion, pain and anger, and as such, it can feel daunting and depressing to some readers. It is in no way a light read. However, sometimes these sad stories are the ones that touch audiences the most. The resolution—and the story as a whole—definitely does that.

Check out these other Cephalopod Coffeehouse reviews!

1.The Armchair Squid2.Counterintuitivity
3.Subliminal Coffee4.Scouring Monk
5.A ARTE DE NEWTON AVELINO6.The Random Book Review
7.StrangePegs -- The Ocean at The End of the Lane8.Ed & Reub
9.What's Up, MOCK?10.My Creatively Random Life
11.Jim Devitt12.Hungry Enough to Eat Six!
13.Bird's Nest14.Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood
15.Words Incorporated16.Spill Beans
17.M.J. Fifield18.Servitor Ludi

Sunday, July 21, 2013

In the End, There's Always Hope

She's running through the woods. Limbs and thorny branches grab at her like little children at play, only these grasping hands rip her thin dress. Her feet, pounding across the dirt, try to find a place, anyplace, to hide. Even though she doesn't see him, her pursuer is close behind. She can smell him, rich and oily like the polish he uses to shine his boots to a blinding glare. The stream looms before her, small, but big enough to lose any trace of who she is. As soon as she steps into that stream, her hope is to come out beyond his grasp, beyond the horrific life she once knew and never loved...

Back in 2005, my husband and I experienced a pretty horrific car accident. Along with a lot of pain, weeks in the hospital, months away from our home, and years of surgeries, physical therapy, and painful recovery came a lot of pain killers accompanied by a certain dream that kept replaying in my sleep.

Her name is Hope. The girl I introduced to you, here, in the beginning. And for months after the accident I couldn't get her out of my mind. So, I asked my husband if he thought it would be weird if I sat down (because basically that's all I could do since my leg was shattered) and wrote her story. He said it wasn't weird at all. Bless that sexy man for not thinking I was going crazy!

With the aid of a healthy dose of Kelly Clarkson at the time (yeah, I know), I wrote my first novel. Now, I'd tried my hand at writing before. You know, the obligatory essays in college, the endless French papers about French authors, a final thesis for grad school, even my first attempts when I was in junior high and high school. The thing of it is that I've always had an active imagination. And I've always loved history. It came as no surprise to me that I chose Historical Fiction (no, I don't mean Historical Romance, because there is a difference) as my favorite genre in which to write.

I took Hope's story, along with some badly written short stories, and tried my hand at contests. The short stories never went anywhere, but, BINGO! Hope's story started hitting it in contests. I thought I had something good going on.

Then I got my first rejection.

The agent thought the story would work better for a YA agent. What?! This was not a YA novel (no offense to the YA authors out there), but hard-hitting literary fiction!

Okay, so I guess I needed to educate myself.

And that's exactly what I did. I took classes on how to construct a novel, what elements to look for that really pull the reader in, and how to know what genre I was even writing. I attended conferences, mainly in hopes of catching the right agent's eye, but also gleaning a thing or two about how this whole writing thing worked. I bought a few books on how to write a good book (not too many, because like with historical research, too much just bogs down your brain with unneeded information) and I learned how to deconstruct my own manuscripts and how to look at my characters with every step they took.

In the end, I eventually set Hope's story aside. My feedback from agents and contest critiques was inconsistent. I loved Hope, I loved her world, but I had to shelve her for the time being. And perhaps that was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made. I had poured so much of my own frustrations and pain into this character, but I wondered if she would ever go anywhere, and much to my own dismay, I thought the same of myself and this thing called writing.

But then I picked myself up and went to work on the next novel. At first I didn't love that main character as much as Hope. She didn't come saddled with as much baggage as Hope. Her life was too prissy and I began to wonder if I'd ever really like this new character.

But you know what? I realized I had to find that place where I could connect with my new MC. I visited a small town in the Midwest that eventually became the backdrop for my story. I saw her in the house that at first would feel strange and unwelcoming, but would soon become a hub of revealing secrets and open arms. I stood under an elm tree in the cemetery, envisioning a key moment in her story, seeing her struggle and at the same time seeing her fate. I walked Main Street, spoke with the local minister and a woman who worked in a church that is so crucial to my story and brings everything to a fatal head. In the end, I found out who this character was.

And after that, I loved working with her story.

I also knew I had a strong novel. I began the querying process. I'd get a few requests, send them out, get replies that said something needed to be fixed, and then I'd move forward again. It wasn't a constant path of every day querying, but rather done in spurts. Rejection can be a little overwhelming in the beginning, especially when it feels like you're just one of many receiving the same form rejection. You begin wondering if anyone is even reading the stupid query letter! So it's good to pace yourself.

By the beginning of this year, I decided I needed to take some time off, do a little spiritual soul-searching, and see if what I was doing was even the right path for me. After taking a month to rework parts of my novel, I decided I'd go with one round, maybe two, of querying and then I'd shelve this book as well. In March I sent out about a dozen queries and within a week I got five requests for fulls. I'd never had that many agents reply that fast and all at one time, so I was optimistic, but also very very cautious.

Okay, so let's cut to the chase, shall we. I'd like to announce that I've recently signed with Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency and I'm very excited about the next step! Getting published is a long road and, as you can see, I've been at it for a few years, but I'm prepared to keep going until I get there. From the time I started querying this novel to the time I signed, it took me about a year and a half to find representation. In the meantime, I didn't sit at home chewing my nails and watching my email inbox. Instead I kept working, writing two more novels in hopes that at least one of them sometime soon would get picked up.

Do I regret setting Hope's story aside? Sometimes, yes, but I know when it's time to move on. I enjoy going back to her story and thinking about the sequels I want to write (hers is the only story I've written where there will one day be sequels). It's sad to finish a novel, knowing you're finished with those characters, but with Hope I can always wander back to her world.

So, yeah, even when things seem bleak or overwhelming or just plain uncertain, I always have hope to go back to. Keep that in mind for yourself if you're struggling through this writing thing!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Redemptive Novels

I picked up a book from the library recently, and had just started reading it when my husband asked what it was about. I turned to the inside-jacket blurb and began reading aloud. Then I got to this line:

"It is a memorable, heartbreaking, and ultimately redemptive novel about finding sustenance and friendship in the most surprising places..."

And my husband rolled his eyes. "Redemptive!" he said. "How can a book be redemptive?" He went on to say that he's tired of hearing this word used to describe novels: not only is it overdone, it's simply the wrong word.

First, hubby is correct that this word is being overused to describe books now: once he pointed it out to me, I started seeing it everywhere: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Language of Flowers, The Snow Child, The Burgess Boys, The Good House. All these are new and popular novels, all described as "redemptive." I've read most of them, and what these books actually have in common is they feature sad-sack characters who are better off by the end. They're feel-good books.

So why aren't the books described that way? Why use that specific word? "Redemption" means "salvation" or "atonement," at least when it's not being used in the fiscal sense. Either you are redeeming yourself, by righting a wrong, or someone is redeeming you—and I think only deities are allowed to do that. So the word has a religious flavor. And in that sense, it is pretty weird to apply it to a book: Does the book erase sin from the reader's heart? That's quite a job, for a book! Even the Bible doesn't claim to do that, at least not merely by the reading of it.

"I think they mean the novels are about redemption," I said to my husband.

"That's doesn't make sense, though," he responded. "If a novel is about water, you don't describe the novel as wet."

I hadn't thought about it that way before. But it's true: If a book was about abuse, you wouldn't call it abusive. If a book was about adoption, you wouldn't call it adoptive. So what is behind this use of "redemptive?" Are people hoping these books will redeem them, somehow? As if, by being shown someone else's redemption, we can find our own? Or is there something else behind the sudden uptick in this book-blurb adjective?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Superman Then and Now

Warning: this review contains spoilers for both Superman (1978) and Man of Steel (2013)

In what seems to be a never-ending obsession with superheroes and their infinite sequels and remakes, this summer brings us a new Superman version for our viewing pleasure. I’m sure this long-awaited remake will be enjoyed by millions with its extravagant display of special effects and attractive actors and actresses. But for the more discerning crowds and/or loyal fans of the Christopher Reeve version, is it worth their time? Does it offer anything new?

Let’s start at the beginning, which in this case is the prologue. In the 1978 film, perhaps the most popular version of this story, Superman/Kal-El’s father was portrayed by none other than the legendary Marlon Brando—a hard act to follow, but the 2013 version does not lag far behind with Russell Crowe in the role of Jor-El. As audiences have become more impatient with time (or so they tell us writers) the opening sequences are action-packed. Superman’s mother is in the midst of a hard delivery while planet Krypton faces a revolution and impending destruction. What a contrast with the static scenes of the 1978 version where the council discusses endlessly the insurrection plans of General Zod (and his two most loyal followers) and condemns them to the Phantom Zone. The Ruling Council is also skeptic of Jor-El’s announcement that their planet will explode in a matter of minutes. In both versions, baby Superman is deposited inside a space capsule on route to Earth, with the hopes that he will survive the blast. Of course, the technology and special effects of the 2013 version supersede the older version, but I personally found Kal-El’s 1978 star-shaped capsule more appealing.

Entering the next chapter in Superman’s life is where the major differences in both films come into play. In the earlier version, we follow the endearing toddler from the time he (dramatically) lands on Earth and meets his new parents, to his teenage angst and struggles. Once he discovers the Fortress of Solitude and talks to a hologram version of his real father, he understands his life’s purpose and lands a job at the Daily Planet to become clumsy reporter by day, superhero by night. This sequence is relatively painless and entertaining. Mostly, it gives us an opportunity to meet and love Clark Kent, even before his superhero days begin.

Man of Steel takes us from the destruction of Krypton to another action sequence where the adult/nomadic Clark Kent saves the crew of a fishing boat from an explosion. In jolting flashbacks, we learn throughout the film the events that took place during his childhood and teenage years, his relationship with his adoptive father and the bullying he was subjected to at school. In a similar fashion to Christopher Nolan’s Batman, a bearded, rough-looking Kent is trying to find himself in this world, and apparently doesn’t belong anywhere until he lands in the Arctic where an important discovery has been made—a Kriptonian space ship guarded by the U.S. Military. The courageous, potty-mouthed Lois Lane is on the front lines peeking at Kent and following him into the Fortress. Yes, Superman fans, the sacred place of Kal-El’s first meeting with his father and his understanding of his true self and meaning is being witnessed and nearly broadcasted by the media!

This marks the biggest difference in the retelling of this story. Lois knows from day one Superman’s identity. Incidentally, this was my biggest disappointment with the film. Sure, it was hard to believe that a pair of thick glasses, a different hairdo and a slight stutter were enough to fool Lois for so long, but the game was fun for the viewer. At least, this viewer. And honestly, wasn’t it harder to believe that Superman could go back in time and change the present? But we bought it nonetheless.

Man of Steel dispenses with Lex Luther and all the events of Superman I, and moves (somewhat) to the plot of Superman II, where Kal–El’s compatriots come after him and generate a grand-scale war that threatens the existence of all humanity. As though following the recipe of every action movie of the last decade, the stakes are high. Real high. World-wide high. And it only takes one to solve them and save human-kind through endless fight-sequences, explosions and building-crashing. The resolution is predictable. The first kiss with Lois Lane, expected. But even more cringe-inducing was the moment when a female captain of the U.S. Army calls Superman “hot” or the fact that Lois has transformed herself into Superwoman to fight the alien race hand in hand with Superman.

And she is everywhere.

No matter what corner of the city Superman lands in his large-scale fist fight with Zod, Lois will find him. Makes us question who the real hero of the film is.

Whereas the heroine seemed like a 21st century cardboard character, Zod was a refreshing departure from the typical, one-dimensional villain of most action films. Zod’s motivation is clear. He wants to save what’s left of his people in spite of the casualties and find a new world for them to inhabit. His goal (survival of his species) was higher than the selfish plots for power that Lex Luther often engineered.

So if you want a more dynamic, bigger scale, less cartoonish version of Superman, watch Man of Steel—it certainly fulfills the checklist of its genre. But if you’re a traditionalist and/or enjoy slower paced films with moments of humor and tenderness, then Superman is for you.

What do you think makes superhero films so popular? Do you think producers and audiences will ever grow tired of them?

Who would you rather be saved by?

My pick!